Despite Olympics party pooper, good year for Indian paddlers….writes Debayan Mukiherjee
Notwithstanding the heartbreak at the Rio Olympics, Indian paddlers put up a good show in 2016 as they scaled new heights and scripted success stories in various parts of the globe to make it a good year for the sport in the country.
The Indians claimed a double gold at the World table tennis team championships, while Manika Batra broke into the women’s top 100, clinching enroute the bronze partnering Mouma Das at the Czech Open. Male paddler Sathiyan Gnanasekaran broke a six-year jinx to lift the Belgium Open title by towering over a tough field.
But it was the dismal Olympic show that stuck out like a sore thumb.
Despite having the biggest contingent till date — Sharath Kamal, Soumyajit Ghosh, Mouma Das and Manika Batra qualified for Rio — all four faced the ignominy of first-round exits.
“We did not perform up to the mark. It was so disappointing. We could have done so much better,” Ghosh, who entered the quadrennial extravaganza as the top-ranked India player, told IANS.
The year, though, started in bright sunshine with the Indian men’s and women’s teams scripting history by clinching the gold medals at the World table tennis team championships.
This was the first time India qualified for the champions division or the top tier of the team championships.
Playing in Kuala Lumpur, the women trounced Luxemburg 3-1 in the event final of the second division, with their male counterparts staved off stiff competition from Brazil to win 3-2.
The women excelled, stitching an eight-game winning streak to keep a clean slate, a first for India in the World Championships. The men were on the bounce, holding firm after initial jitters against Nigeria in the group stages.
The Kuala Lumpur successes in March were followed by a September triumph at Olomouc. Batra and Das showed no signs of post-Olympics blues, bagging the bronze in the doubles category of the Czech Open, soon after reaching the quarter-finals of the Bulgarian Open.
Batra moved from strength-to-strength breaking into the top 100 in December, to provide the perfect icing on the cake. She is now ranked 98.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Batra told IANS days after reaching the goal she had set for herself. “Now I have to aim to go in the top 70s,” the tall paddler added.
Gnanasekaran had a year to remember as well. Since Sharath Kamal’s Egypt Open triumph in July 2010, no Indian had won a major singles Pro Tour crown. But the wiry Chennai lad decided to re-write the history books with a superlative show in the Belgium Open to beat three higher ranked opponents en route his crown.
Soumyajit Ghosh also ruffled Sharath’s feathers after knocking the country’s face of the sport off his perch after a decade in May to become the No.1 player from India.
According to the Siliguri-born paddler, it was the Asian Cup where he beat World No.14 Jung Youngsik of Korea on way to finishing seventh that raised his stock. He ended the year on a high with the prestigious Arjuna Award.
Sharath Kamal, arguably the finest player the country has produced, showed his mettle in the National Ranking (South Zone) Table Tennis Championships in Visakhapatnam in October.
Out of the national circuit for some time due to club commitments in Germany, the 34-year old three-time Olympian slogged it out in the qualifiers as he had fewer national ranking points.
That he won outshining Sathiyan 4-1 in the men’s singles final was proof, if proof were needed, of his class.
But it was not a cakewalk for even a player of Sharath Kamal’s stature, because of the seamless balls used in India, as opposed to balls with seam which are used in Europe.
Also, with the banning of speed glue, which previously used to minimise the external factors — like whether one was playing in Germany or India — acclimatisation has become the key.
Looking ahead to 2017, the Indian table tennis fraternity will hold its breath to see how the re-appointment of Italian coach Massimo Costantini takes the game forward. He has been handed a two-year contract.
Max, as he is fondly called by players, was with the Indian team from early 2009 till the end of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, guiding India to five medals, including a men’s doubles gold and a silver in the women’s team event.
On the administrative side, online score-keeping on all courts in Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) tournaments has been a boon.