There was a familiar roadblock in the draw for Harmeet Desai at the World Table Tennis Contender event in Lagos, Nigeria. He had made his way through the qualification round, but now was to face world No 12 Jang Woojin of South Korea in the pre-quarterfinal.
Desai had never beaten a player ranked this high before, though he did remember facing Jang three years ago, at the Asian Championships. The latest meeting though came in a week where the 29-year-old from Surat was playing the right shots at the right time, and with remarkable accuracy. He came up with upset after upset to make it all the way to the semi-final, eventually losing to Tokyo Olympics bronze-medallist Dimitrij Ovtcharov.
At the start of the tournament, Desai was ranked 134 in the world. But when the rankings were updated after his Nigeria sojourn, he’s climbed up 57 places to 77. A huge week.
“This was a good confidence booster,” Desai told Scroll. “A confirmation that I’m on the right track, doing the right things. I just have to believe and keep going. Sometimes things don’t happen quickly, it takes time. But you just have to keep going.”
Coming up with the wins against higher ranked opponents weren’t exactly strokes of luck. He had made specific plans for the matches.
“I was pretty fearless in that match (against Jang),” Desai said, a few days after scripting a comprehensive 13-11, 11-4, 11-7 win over the top 15 player. “I kept changing my serve, the spin, the placement. I wasn’t sticking to the same things I’m comfortable with. That made him sceptical because he couldn’t figure out my next move.
“If I served the first on the backhand, I wouldn’t do that the second time. If I won a point on the backhand, I wouldn’t serve it there again because he’d be prepared. I didn’t play the same shot twice in a row. I kept changing it.”
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Pushing himself out of his comfort zone led Desai to pick up the biggest win of his career. But his streak of upsetting top players hadn’t quite ended just there. In the quarterfinal he faced the world No 26 Xiang Peng of China. Once again, he had a strategy in place.
“I knew he’s not very powerful, but he’s quick. I knew I had to be patient in the rally and wait for my chance to come,” Desai explained.
“I just had to not make any unforced errors in the beginning. it was easier for me when I got past the first two-three shots in the rally because that’s where his strength is. I slowed the game down, didn’t give him too much pace because that’s what he likes. It broke his rhythm,” he added.
Under the radar
For most of his career, Desai has remained largely under the radar, especially when compared to the likes of Achanta Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran – two of the most decorated table tennis players from the country.
Yet Desai is an accomplished athlete in his own right. He’s a two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist in the men’s team event from the 2018 and 2022
editions. He’s a former national champion, the current National Games champion, and the reigning Commonwealth Championships men’s singles champion.
But from his hometown in Surat, a city that had previously not had much of a sporting culture, Desai helped break a glass ceiling. “Earlier when I’d go for a national tournament, there’d be maybe two or three players from Surat. Now there’s 25-30, and it’s become a centre for table tennis in Gujarat.”
He’s been putting in the hard yards, and giving himself every opportunity to grow and learn. It’s a process that has taken him to France, where he plays club table tennis for Rouen.
“The experience there is very good. You get to play against and with some top ranked players and Olympic medallists,” he said. “It’s a great learning because you see how they practice and prepare, what mindset they take to the table. It helps understand the game better and improve. You get to understand your game more as well – what are your strengths and weaknesses.”
He’s found a better understanding of his own game, what he’s good at and what he needs to improve. And, just as he showed in Nigeria, he’s starting to take advantage of that knowledge at a crucial time, given the upcoming Asian Championships and Asian Games in September.
But he’s also set a few goals and targets for himself.
“I’m trying to keep it simple and not look too far ahead. I just want to work on the mental and physical aspects of my game,” he added. “I know that these two things are what will help me be stable at a high level. I’m going to be turning 30 soon, so if I want to prolong my career, I’ll have to work on this much more.”
The grind however, continues for Desai. He’s currently in Tunisia, ready to compete in another Contender event. But memories of his achievements in Nigeria are not going to fade anytime soon.
“Hopefully it will help me build momentum and break into the top 50, which has been my goal for the last few years,” he said.
In the space of a week, he jumped 57 places in the world rankings. He always had the weapons, now he has the belief.