With some of the world’s top players featuring, there are no easy matches at the WTT Star Contender in Goa. Playing her first match in the women’s singles category, Prithika Pavade looked to be making an early exit. Pavade was down two games before she held her nerve and fought back with a 9-11, 9-11, 10-12, 11-7, 11-3 win. It’s a result that set Pavade out for a clash against South Korea’s Nayeong Kim with a place in the quarterfinals up for grabs.
The win is an important one for Pavade. It’s her first at the WTT Star Contender in Goa. She had competed at the 2023 edition of the tournament but had lost out in the qualification first round.
It’s not just Pavade who hopes she does well in India. It’s all of France’s table tennis fraternity. With the Paris Olympics just a few months away, much is expected of Pavade, born and raised in the Parisian suburb of St. Dennis, who at World number 33, is France’s top-ranked women’s singles player. Still only 19 years old, Pavade has had a solid start to the year. She made the round of 32 at the WTT Star Contender in Doha and is coming off a quarterfinal win at the Europe Top 16-- a knockout competition for Europe’s top players.
But while she has wins elsewhere, there’s more reason for Pavade to value this particular victory in Goa. Although she was born and raised in Paris, Pavade has Indian roots. “I’m very happy to be in India. It is a special place for me,” she says.
It’s not uncommon to have players of Chinese origin rise to the top ranks in their adopted countries. At the European Top 16 tournament, for instance, six of the 16 entrants are of Chinese descent. The tournament incidentally was won by Pavade’s compatriot Jia Nan Yuan, who learnt her sport in China before migrating to France. As a player of Indian descent, Pavade is a bit of an oddity.
Pavade’s parents are from Puducherry, an erstwhile territory of France in India. “They moved to France in 2003, and I was born in 2004,” she says.
Pavade picked up the sport of table tennis when she was about six years old. And it was almost inevitable that she did. Although her father Vijayan Pavade worked at the George V Hotel in Paris, he had been a table tennis player in his youth in Puducherry. “My father wasn’t a national-level player, but he still had good skills. When I was six, he took me to a gymnasium that was about two minutes from our apartment. There was a table there. My dad was the one who first chose table tennis for me. But he never forced me to stick to it, and later on, it became my choice because I just fell in love with the sport,” she says.
She was a precocious talent. “I think within a year, I was starting to beat my dad. Of course, he wasn’t a serious player at that time because he had to do his job and work to provide for his children, at that time. But I got my foundation from him. He never told me, but I think he was happy. He always tried to push me to be a better player. At first, I was playing for fun, but I realised I was good at it when I was about 11 years old, and I first won the (Under 14) French Championships. Then it slowly became clear that it is what I wanted to do,” she says.
According to local news reports around that time, there were over 70 journalists who were crammed in Pavade’s apartment looking to interview the young Indian-origin girl who had just won a national title. But Pavade’s graph has only risen steadily ever since. At 16 years old, she won the European U-21 title and the same year, became one of the youngest-ever French Olympians when she qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. “That was probably the greatest moment of my life,” she says. A close second, she says, was when she became the senior French national champion in 2022.
With a lot more experience now, Pavade has high hopes for the Paris 2024 Games.
“I’m super excited. It’s the biggest event in almost every sport. I think our generation is very lucky because it’s crazy to have the Olympics at home. My first school and my first club in the same city. I will be a little nervous, but the most important thing is to enjoy the moment,” she says.
While Pavade, as her nation’s top women’s singles player and with France guaranteed a team quota, will almost certainly be a part of the singles tournament in Paris, perhaps her best chance of a medal is in the mixed doubles. She is paired alongside fellow teenager Felix Lebrun, who at 17 and world-ranked eight, is considered one of the most promising prospects in the game.
French allegiance, so-so Tamil
While her future is fairly determined at this point, with her Indian origins and the fact that she is higher ranked than any player from India (India’s top-ranked women’s singles player Manika Batra is ranked 38th in the world), Pavade admits she’s been asked about switching allegiances to the land of her fathers birth.
The thought never crossed her mind though. “I was born in France. I’ve lived there all my life. Of course, India will always have a special place in my heart, but I’ve spent all my life in France,” says Pavade, who’s currently studying Chemistry and environmental science at university.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t stay in touch with her Indian heritage. “I’ve been to India twice for holidays with my family. My grandma and grandfather are still in Pondicherry (Puducherry). I went last summer to Pondicherry, and I even trained in the club my father played at. And of course, I played a tournament in Goa last year,” she says. She thinks she could do more though. “I can understand a little Tamil. My parents still speak to me in Tamil, but I answer in French. I’d like to think I’m fluent in French. I can speak English, and my Tamil is so-so. I can probably learn some more,” she says.
While language can be hard, the one thing she’s completely at home in India is the food. “The thing I loved the most in India is the food. My mom is a great cook. In France, she cooked a lot of Indian food. I’ve even started to learn how to cook Indian food. My favourite food to cook is mutton biriyani,” she says.
There are other characteristics about her that Pavade feels are Indian. “I’m a bit introverted and calm. I’ve always felt that was the Indian part of me,” she says. Where her personality comes through though is on the table. There, Pavade doesn’t want to be seen as a great ‘Indian-origin’ player but just as someone exceptional. “This Olympics is special, but I am still quite young. I have a long career, and I want to win medals in the European championships. I want medals in the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles at the Worlds and Olympics. I want to do something great. I want to be one of the best players in history. I love this sport, and I think I can do something good. It’s in my hands,” she says.
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