Table tennis as a sport has seen its popularity in India grow significantly over the past few years. Medals at the last editions of the Asian and Commonwealth Games ensured people were tuned in when the likes of Sharath Kamal, Manika Batra, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Sutirtha Mukherjee took the court at Tokyo 2020 recently.
India’s players may have missed out on medals at the Olympics but their performances – like Sharath’s spirited fight against the legendary Ma Long and Batra’s two impressive victories – led to another step in the right direction for table tennis in the country.
One other factor that attracted more viewers to TT during the Tokyo Olympics was the fascinating commentary of Adam Bobrow. The American, who is known as the ‘voice of table tennis’, has what one can term a unique way of presenting the sport. He has an uninhibited sense of humour on air and his catchphrases like “Ma Long – the captain, the dragon, the dictator” became an instant hit with those who don’t follow the sport as regularly.
Bobrow is the official commentator for the International Table Tennis Federation and travels extensively to cover ITTF’s annual world tour. Videos on his YouTube channel attract millions of views and offer a different, fun and engaging look at the top players.
In a chat with Scroll.in, Bobrow shared his views on Indian table tennis, potential threats to China’s domination of the sport, how he developed his inimitable commentary style, and more.
Here are excerpts of the interview:
You earned plenty of admirers for your commentary during the Tokyo Olympics. People enjoyed how humour was a constant along with your tactical analysis. How did you develop this commentary style?
Well, I guess I try to learn as much as possible so that I can pass along anything I learn to help others enjoy this wonderful sport as much as I do.
In terms of humour, I enjoy laughing and when I am not busy laughing, I also enjoy a bit of smiling. It seems that other people share these interests so I try to make the experience engaging and enjoyable. I find that humour is really helpful for that, so I sprinkle some on for a little extra flavor. It makes it fun for me and the feedback I get is overwhelmingly positive so I continue to enjoy myself and hope to continue helping others enjoy as well.
What does table tennis need to do to gain more viewership?
There are many different ways to accomplish this. I believe anyone interested in growing the sport can play a role in accomplishing this goal. Talk about table tennis. Wear it with pride. Change the image, the attitude and vibe that’s associated with it. Make people want to be a part of it. Getting more people playing always helps, but branding and marketing the stars, identifying what elements really connect with people and bring new people into the sport and highlight those elements.
Also, empowering and encouraging others to create more TT content would be helpful. If people who are playing are making it visible to others that can go a long way. There are a lot of details within the presentation of the sport and selling the sport that I think could be a big factor like making sure people feel included and have fun. There are a decent number of people that already follow table tennis but the potential growth is massive, so we want to not only keep in mind the ones that are already here, but understand what would help people really get into it. I think a lot of people are working hard on this currently and making some very positive changes.
What is your assessment of Indian table tennis’ progress over the past few years? How can its growth be accelerated?
I have seen massive growth in India since 2017. I see more interest in the sport, more people playing in general and massive numbers turning out for the Indian national championships. There also has been quite a rise in the level of the top TT players. I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
To accelerate growth, there are many approaches that could work. I think having more high-level players of different styles come to India from around the world would be helpful. Choppers (defensive players) for example. I think strength training and physical conditioning lead by specialists would be very helpful. Nutritionists, mental coaches and regular training camps with competitions to simulate high-pressure tournaments would be helpful as well. But this is all for the pros and those who are serious about it already.
The sport needs an image makeover; a cultural change that makes people excited to talk about it, play it and follow it. This involves focus on marketing and promotion of the players and the sport in a way that helps people fall in love with the sport and personalities in it. With more people watching, the commercial value of the sport would also grow and lead to more lucrative careers.
Television shows can show the fun side of the sport and make it exciting to learn about. Social venues could create fun atmospheres for people to enjoy playing with friends and also introduce people to the next level of play, so they could hold parties or take lessons. This could create a culture where people are playing, talking about table tennis and enjoying it more widely which would create an upward spiral that should grow the sport immensely.
How do you think Indian table tennis is perceived in China, Europe, and other parts of the world?
I would guess it’s different in every part of the world. For example, China dominates the sport so to be on their radar, you need to be challenging them or be a threat. While India over the years hasn’t contended closely with China, I am sure China has recently taken notice of India’s massive improvements. After all, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran was one of the last three non-Chinese players to beat Wang Chuqin (one of the top Chinese players).
I see European leagues offering contracts to more Indian players, so there must be some recognition that India is a country that takes table tennis seriously and produces some strong players. I think when most people think “table tennis”, they think of China and East Asia in general, but if India continues improving the way it has been, I think they will soon be thought of as a strong table tennis nation.
How are you seeing grassroots table tennis emerge in other parts of the world barring China? Which country do you think can fight China in the next 10 years?
Well, I see more effort in the United States to get table tennis into schools and in California, tons of full-time table tennis clubs are opening up. More and more parents are supporting their children by hiring live-in coaches as well. In many parts of the world where kids are playing for school teams, I think this is a good start. In India, I have seen some academies that focus on professional full-time training for young players and I think that is very important to build a strong future and produce results that could catch the attention of investors, the government and other types of support. It is very effective to get it into schools, starting with teams and competitions in elementary school, but also in middle school and high school as well.
Right now, Japan is the closest to challenging China, especially on the women’s side although, in the men’s game, Germany made it to the Olympic team final. Japan has a deep respect for and interest in table tennis. You can drop the names of six different current players and they are celebrities, people know who they are and that they are table tennis players.
While the men of Germany are strong, they have been led by two veteran players for the last decade. So Japan I think would be the front runner to challenge China, but a lot can happen in 10 years. It’s nice that India has invested in growing the sport and developing players in table tennis. We’ve seen some very positive results in only the last four years and hopefully, India will continue to make strides to challenge the Chinese.
Could you share any fun anecdotes from your time interacting with legends of the game?
At the Australian Open a few years ago, I looked out of my hotel room at a rugby field, I saw Mima Ito and Maharu Yoshimura playing soccer before sunset. I knew them well and grew up playing soccer, so I ran outside to join them.
After passing the ball around a bit, I said I used to play goalkeeper and told Mima to take a penalty kick. She had one shot and I think the goal was a little smaller than a professional one. She kicked the ball right to the upper corner perfectly and scored. I actually posted the video of this on my Facebook profile. She seems to be an excellent athlete in many sports.
I have other stories but maybe I’ll save some of the more shocking ones for an Instagram Live if someone asks. Remind me to share about the first time Timo Boll and I met in 2013. Good times!
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