The 83rd Table Tennis National Championship was meant to showcase the best of the best in India. But no winner, rookie or veteran, could shake off the cloud of gloom it was played under.
And the players understood that. They got together early on, deciding among themselves that whoever won, the title would be dedicated to the one player who was no longer with them.
“It was very hard to compete throughout the tournament,” said Achanta Sharath Kamal, the eventual champion, to Scroll.in.
“(D Vishwa) was our common friend. Me, Sathiyan, the other players, we decided that whoever wins, the title will be dedicated to Vishwa.”
A day before the tournament was to commence, Vishwa, an upcoming table tennis player who had created quite a name for himself in the junior domestic circuit, died in a car crash while travelling to the venue in Shillong on April 17.
“(The tragedy) was running through my head when we were playing. My thoughts were with him, it was really hard,” said Sharath, who duly put up a post on social media dedicating his record 10th national title to the 18-year-old.
Away in Chennai, around 2000 kilometres away from the fateful crash, R Ramnath Prasad, Vishwa’s coach still chokes over the phone as he recalles his former student.
But he allows himself a brief chuckle when describing the first week he spent training the then five-year-old Vishwa at the Ramaswamy TT Club.
“He was a chubby kid when I met him first. At that time he was maybe three, and would come to the club to pick up his sister,” said Ramnath, who trained Vishwa for 13 years, to this publication.
“A few years later I told him to start training. In one week, he was hitting forehands and backhands, around 150-200 balls consistently. That was a big thing. Generally, it would take a month for someone just starting to play only 50 backhand counters. But Vishwa was doing over a hundred on both flanks in that one week.”
Ramnath is quick to add that though he was impressed, he did not know at the time how good a player Vishwa would one day become.
Tall, attack-minded and sharp at the table, the youngster was soft-spoken, relaxed, and friendly when he wasn’t playing.
The titles started to come in quickly at the youth levels, including three consecutive junior (Under-17) national titles when he moved to that division as a 15-year-old. But his mentality remained unchanged.
“I never had to push him, he was always self-motivated and wanted to work harder. He was never satisfied and always had a bigger goal he’d want to achieve,” Ramnath said.
“When he won the cadets, he wanted to win the sub-juniors, then the juniors, then seniors. He was always looking towards the higher categories. He would not boast much after he won a junior title, because he had bigger targets.”
The rise in the junior levels though prompted the seniors to also take notice of him. Soon Sharath started to guide the teenager, especially after the pandemic struck in 2020.
The 39-year-old Padma Shri, a close friend of Ramnath, had been introduced to Vishwa when the youngster was around 10.
“I’d keep taking Vishwa to Sharath’s house. Slowly Sharath became a mentor for him, and he helped transform Vishwa,” Ramnath explained.
“Vishwa was a very attacking player but he’d rely only on his forehand. Sharath transformed his game. He made him more confident in his backhand, slice and topspin. He was guiding him with his practice, his fitness.
“If Sharath called for a practice session at 6:30 AM, he’d be there some 15-20 minutes early. He was very disciplined about timings. And Sharath saw the hard work he put in.”
That’s what made Vishwa’s sudden death all the more hurtful for Sharath and Ramnath. In terms of table tennis in India, Vishwa’s talent had been recognised early, and he had been groomed meticulously to become one of the leading players once he was old enough to progress to the senior division.
But Vishwa had already set his sights on the biggest prize the sport had to offer.
“He’d tell me ever so often, that he wanted to compete at the Paris 2024 Olympics. And then win a medal at Los Angeles 2028. He didn’t want to just take part and come back. He was driven by that dream,” said the coach.
“It’s just so harsh that this happened.”
A day before the fateful journey, Vishwa had been playing yet another practice match against Sharath. This time, he got the better of the veteran in the friendly exercise. But he didn’t tell Ramnath about it at all.
“He told one or two of his friends. And they told me about that match during the funeral,” he said.
Vishwa didn’t tell Ramnath about the win, the coach suspects because he’d pester the player with questions about the match. But it’s almost fitting that Ramnath wasn’t informed. After all, Vishwa’s sights were set on the bigger stages in the sport.
And then, in a manner that shook the entire table tennis fraternity in India, it all came to heart-breaking end.