Just like every year, February saw tourists from all over the world heading to Goa for celebrating the Carnival. But for a tiny community that is attached with a sport that revolved around a 9’ x 5’ table, the Carnival actually began — for the first time in India — on the outskirts of Panaji a week after the conclusion of the Carnival.
WTT Star Contender Goa 2023 — the most high-profile table tennis event to have been staged in India — was played at the Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Indoor Stadium from February 27 to March 5. Despite the last-minute withdrawals of legends Ma Long and Chen Meng, the tournament saw six of the top-10 ranked men and five of the top-10 women in the world competing for a handsome prize pool worth $215,000.
As expected, the event was a grand success, with the table tennis fraternity flocking to the auditorium, especially for the last four days that saw the top paddlers in action. Promising paddlers along with their coaches and parents travelled to Goa to lend a festive touch to the event.
Inside the arena, however, Manika Batra was the lone Indian that actually made the home support count. The lanky girl stormed into the women’s singles pre-quarterfinal and gave China’s Qian Tianwei a scare.
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A. Sharath Kamal, the torchbearer of Indian table tennis, bowed out in the men’s singles main draw first round, G. Sathiyan exited in the second round after overcoming Indian counterpart Harmeet Desai — who qualified for his maiden Star Contender main draw — in the opening round.
Despite Manika and Archana Kamath ranked No. 6 in women’s doubles and Manika and Sathiyan placed at No. 5 in mixed doubles, neither pair progressed beyond the quarterfinals. It was certainly the biggest tournament to have been played in India but not the first. Besides the Ultimate Table Tennis, the franchise-league that’s been stalled since witnessing its third edition in 2019, the erstwhile Pro Tour event — ITTF Indian Open — was also staged in India in 2017.
While these one-off events definitely help in showcasing India as a possible destination to the global table tennis arena, does it actually help the Indian table tennis fraternity to take its performance and stature a few notches up?
That’s where Stupa Sports Analytics — the promoter of the event — has learnt a lesson from the past. Stupa has struck a deal of three years, extendable to five, with World Table Tennis to host a Star Contender event.
“For any major sports property, it takes time to establish itself. And for a sport like table tennis, besides its commercial success, if we want to contribute directly to the table tennis community in India, it will only happen in the long-run if the top paddlers repeatedly play in India,” says Megha Gambhir, Stupa’s CEO.
Sathiyan, who has been working hard to maintain his world ranking in the top-30s, agrees. “Just like any other sport, being a table tennis pro is an expensive proposition, so for the cream of Indian table tennis, getting an opportunity to play a top event at home certainly helps. And if it can be an annual fixture, it helps even more,” Sathiyan says.
Kamlesh Mehta, the seven-times men’s singles national champion who has recently taken over as the secretary-general of the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI), notes the fact that “more than 40” Indian table tennis players could participate in the gala, a first for India at any Star Contender event.
“It was possible only because the event was played in India. And the response is bound to increase in future. I am sure such events will motivate youngsters who came from all over the country to work hard on their game, fitness, skills in future,” Mehta says.
In fact, the TTFI could not ask for Stupa to time the event better.
After all, despite Sharath, Manika and Sathiyan’s heroics on the table, the Indian table tennis administration, over the last couple of years, had been in the news for all the wrong reasons.
A court case filed by Manika resulted in the TTFI’s elected body being replaced by a Committee of Administrators, which severely affected the domestic circuit.
With Mehta leading a newly elected body, the TTFI has begun hosting the national ranking tournaments and the National Championship for various age-groups, with the Senior Nationals scheduled for later this month. With a topsy-turvy domestic circuit trying to regain its consistent outlook, the Star Contender event brought table tennis back in the headlines for all the right reasons. Of course, Stupa had to organise the event in less than two months in the first year.
Next year, though, it needs to do more to raise awareness about the event and make it more inclusive for the fans, who will continue to be dominated by India’s table tennis community. The fan interaction opportunities during the event with the top paddlers were far and few, something that can be worked on.
Similarly, top players’ pep-talks can be organised — if not with lucky draw winners, at least with the ball-kids that included top names in the age-group categories — with promising paddlers. It was also surprising to see the absence of event-related merchandise, a must at a top sporting event across the world.
With the Goa Sports Authority and the tourism ministry lending a helping hand for the event, Stupa is optimistic for the next two editions to be played in the tourist haven. Irrespective of the venue, the onus is on its promoters to ensure that the Star Contender emerges as a carnival for Indian table tennis in every sense five years down the line.