UTT: A league of many firsts

Ultimate Table Tennis, with international stars, a unique format, and tweaks in rules, has made a splash in its inaugural season. But what do the players, former players and coaches make of it?

Ultimate Table Tennis was the first professional league dedicated to the sport in India.   -  M. VEDHAN

The Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) tournament was a league of many firsts. It was the first professional league dedicated to the sport in India, the first time the sport was so widely promoted and –  the main talking point –  the first time the ten-second rule was enforced.

In the ten-second rule – unique to the UTT – a player is allowed only ten seconds to serve from the time he is handed the ball.

The rule does not feature in professional ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation) tournaments as players use the same ball throughout the match, unless the ball breaks. 

However, in a bid to speed up the game and make it more spectator-friendly, organisers of the UTT deployed ball kids and a collection of two bowls of balls, thereby ensuring a constant supply.

The rule had received mixed reactions from the fraternity, with some saying it was a little too harsh on the players while others feeling the move was good for the sport and would spur players' fitness levels.

Sportstar discussed the rule and a few other aspects of UTT with players, former players and coaches. Here are the excerpts:-

On the ten-second rule

Former Olympian and Arjuna awardee, Subramaniam Raman was supportive of the rule. “I think the ITTF will take a cue on the ten-second rule between points and speed up the game. Players have to become fitter and play faster matches,” he said. 

“The ITTF should consider appointing ball-boys to make the games faster. The UTT has set the tone for such changes.”

M. S. Mythili, a two-time national champion said, “The games were faster and you’re not wasting any time. But as a player, you didn’t have time to think or strategise and that could be an issue.”

“Players have to start thinking faster and will have to become fitter as well,” she added.

One of the city’s top coaches, Srinivasa Rao was not entirely supportive of the rule. “You can follow the rule but not at the cost of game and match,” he said, talking about the instance when Anthony Amalraj of Dabang Smashers was docked a point while he was serving at 9-10 in the deciding game against Shaze Challengers' Andrej Gacina, which led to him losing the match in the second tie of the tournament.

“The umpires should have given a warning first and not (dock) the point straight-away,” he opined.

Former player, Rajat Kamal said the rule made it an even playing field. “The players didn’t have much time to think about strategies in ten seconds and that way, the playing ground was quite level. Since the rule is common for everybody, I wouldn’t say it was unfair as such.”

Ravi Venkatesh, chief coach of the Tamil Nadu men’s state team said, “Anything new is bound to have initial resistance. TT is the second fastest game in the world and the players are tuned to think on their feet." 

"I think ten seconds (are) a good enough time,” he added.

On the league’s format

Rao felt the format of the league was cramped. “With nine matches in a day, the crowd could not quite understand what was happening. I myself found it tough to follow the scoring pattern,” he said.

Kamal had a different perspective. “The format was quite interesting. If you see, the rankings didn’t matter in this format. Even the world No. 200 could get a game off the world No. 20 because of the high intensity of the matches, making each point important.”

“This added pressure on the foreign players as they were expected to win 3-0. For the Indian players, who were ranked lower than their foreign counterparts, pulling off one game against them was a big thing and it added to the total score.”

Mythili was supportive of the format. “I think nine matches and three games was a good start — this way every game was important and the results were taken on an overall basis. Each match and each game was important and that maintained the thrill.”

On whether a franchise-based league was necessary to promote TT in India

Raman felt the league would be a great learning opportunity for Indian players. “Of course! Any league that brings together national level players from different states and international level players from different parts of the world brings interest and variety to the sport. It is a learning process for the (Indian) players and they will progress.”

Mythili approved the franchise-based league and felt it would boost the sport. “Definitely yes. Badminton and kabaddi have come up because of the league. The players come out on top, so many people have taken up the sport and it’s become popular."

Adding that table tennis is not as widely played in India as compared to cricket, Mythili felt that the UTT provided a necessary impetus to the sport.

Future of the sport

Raman was all praise of the league and felt it was the beginning of great things to come for the sport. “It (UTT) was a boon for many Indian paddlers — they received good remuneration. I feel that if this continues, there will be many more takers for the game and many more people will take up the sport."

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