At the airport in Hyderabad, Sreeja Akula clutched a trophy that would not fit in her luggage. It was a memento of a latest conquest at a tournament, and one garnered the attention of her co-passengers. In the shuttle bus taking her from the plane to the terminal, she recalled how an elderly gentleman enquired the nature of the silverware.
Once informed that it was for a table tennis triumph, he jumped into his own memories of watching the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
“He said he watched all the table tennis matches and that he was a fan of (Achanta) Sharath Kamal,” Akula described to Scroll.
“Then he said that there was also a little girl who had done really well and that he couldn’t remember her name. He asked me if I knew. I said her name is Sreeja, and that’s me. He was surprised, apologised for not recognising me and then asked to take selfies,” she added, laughing at the memory.
Just over a fortnight ago, the 24-year-old was handed another trophy. This time for defending her women’s singles crown at the 84th Senior National Championships, held in Jammu. She also won gold in the women’s doubles, and claimed bronze in the mixed doubles event.
It was the second time she had won the title, but given that it came after her impressive sojourn at the CWG in Birmingham last year, there were different emotions leading up to the event.
“I felt some pressure initially because I was thinking that since this is after the CWG, I need to defend my title,” she said.
“I thought about it a lot at the beginning, but we had the team championship first. I was a part of the winning team (she plays for the Reserve Bank of India), and that helped me take off some of the pressure.
“I was facing match points in the quarterfinal (against Yashawini Ghorpade) but managed to turn it around. That’s when I started to relax. In my head, I knew that I had already won the nationals before, I don’t need to take any tension. I had that belief.”
It’s a self-assurance that she’s carried with her since her exploits at Commonwealth Games.
As Indian table tennis stalwart Manika Batra faltered in Birmingham, Akula was piling on the wins both in the team and individual events. She eventually finished fourth in the women’s singles event, but won gold with Sharath Kamal in the mixed doubles event – that was the first time he had won the mixed doubles gold at the CWG.
Her accomplishments in England saw her win the prestigious Arjuna Award as well.
Since then, Akula has started to make more changes in her game.
“The main thing is that I’ve tried to improve my consistency, especially on my backhand. On the forehand I’ve worked on variations in speed and spin,” she said.
“It’s all about changing the tempo, putting up something different. It has taken some time to adjust to the changes but there has been improvement.”
And it comes at a time when Akula is looking to stake a claim at bigger awards. The first target is to make a mark at the World Table Tennis Championships in Durban, South Africa, next month, and later at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China in September.
Along the way, she’s also looking to get back to where she was in the ranking table.
“The ranking system changed recently and I lost a lot of the points I was defending. Because of that I’ve gone down to 110 in the world. But I’m taking it all step-by-step,” she said.
“By the end of the year I want to be back to the top 70, and then get into the top 50.”
These are tall strides she hopes to make, yet none beyond that little girl from Hyderabad. The one steadily growing in stature.