As Indian table tennis heads towards a new dawn, Sreeja Akula also marks an upward climb.

The 25-year-old from Hyderabad kicked off the 2024 season in impressive form. But in April, her ascent saw her achieve a significant milestone as she secured her career-best world ranking of No 38 in the International Table Tennis Federation’s women’s singles charts. It was a mark that briefly saw her overtake veteran Manika Batra as the highest ranked Indian women’s singles player.

The feat did not come without a share of some silverware.

In January, she won her first international tournament at the WTT Feeder Corpus Christi 2024 in Texas, USA, where she triumphed over Lily Zhang of the United States in a commanding 3-0 victory (11-6, 18-17, 11-5) in the final. In March, she secured another title, at the WTT Feeder Beirut II.

“We are really happy [about the ranking], that’s what we always expected out of her,” said her coach Somnath Ghosh, a former national champion to Scroll. “Last year, she was placed somewhere out of 100, but her performances off-late have helped.

“Playing in the United States was a good decision. I think it was the turning point.”

Akula’s prowess was further showcased in February at the ITTF World Team Table Tennis Championships in Busan, South Korea where she delivered a remarkable straight games victory over then-world No 2 Wang Yidi of China (11-7, 11-9-13-11) during the group stage.

In Akula’s rise, a healthy rivalry is developing among the top women’s singles player in the country in the lead-up to the Paris Olympics in July, which certainly bodes well for the team.

Batra, who has long been India’s flag bearer in women’s singles, climbed up 15 spots in the ITTF World rankings to achieve her career best ranking of world No 24 (she is currently ranked 26) following her incredible run at the Saudi Smash in May. It saw her retake the India No 1 standing from Akula, who is now the world No 42.

Also read: Table tennis: How Sreeja Akula, national champion again, is growing in self belief

With Akula’s plan to participate in a few more events such as WTT Contender Lagos and WTT Contender Tunis in June, the rankings can be expected to shuffle again. In the upcoming tournaments, Akula’s focus will be to execute the technical improvisations she has been practicing with Ghosh.

According to former Olympian Neha Aggarwal Sharma, one technical aspect that Akula needs to master in order to become a complete player is the backhand.

“You need to be able to control speeds and spins of players at that level from the backhand,” Aggarwal said. “For Sreeja, the use of the backhand is what she needs to get better at. The backhand rubber is your defensive rubber and it needs to be like a wall. It also has a potential for attack if you get the right technique.”

Ghosh also acknowledged the need for consistency on the backhand and has been calling different left-handed sparring partners for 25-year-old Akula to work on her receiving skills.

Aggarwal also observed her performances this year and believes that Akula’s fitness levels have been impressive. Hiram Bakshi, Akula’s physical trainer and physiotherapist, has been vital in improving her strength and conditioning, ensuring she is one of the fittest players in the circuit, explained Ghosh.

The Hyderabad paddler has made some great strides with her mental training, thanks to sports psychologist Gayatri Vartak. This is in contrast to, Ghosh asserted, how nervous she was ahead of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Though the nerves threatened to get the better of her, Ghosh recalled that his ward managed to turn things around and adopt a fresh approach after a conversation with Vartak.

She went on to finish a commendable fourth in the women’s singles event, before pairing up with Achanta Sharath Kamal to become the first Indians to win a mixed doubles gold at the Commonwealth Games.

This came at a time when Akula had grown in confidence. But Ghosh remembers a time in 2016 when the paddler stayed in a shell.

Ghosh was towards the end of his playing career at the time, and he had just started coaching.

“She was always so quiet and I always wanted answers,” said Ghosh of Akula’s temperament.

The duo have worked together since Akula was 11-year-old.

“I remember the time when I had no student but her and just one table to work with,” Ghosh said, adding that he had also been her sparring partner and fitness trainer at the time.

“At that point, I told her that there is no other player that I can even get her to practice with so it’s better that she leaves [to train at a different academy]. But she said, ‘Can’t I play against you and practice? If I can do that, I will be sticking around.’”

Aggarwal observed that Akula seems like a much more matured player with better decision-making skills. And her appetite for taking risks in matches has also increased after she won the mixed doubles gold in Birmingham.

Her partner in that win, Sharath Kamal, was a big factor in building that confidence.

Also read: How Sreeja Akula reset and struck a historic gold with Sharath Kamal

“Sharath is naturally going to have a very good effect on the players around him,” explained Ghosh. “When I discussed it with him, he took it very sportingly and said he would be keen to try.”

Ghosh explained that Sharath Kamal did most of the heavy lifting until the Round of 16 at the Commonwealth Games, before Akula’s temperament changed and she started to assert herself in matches.

Her dropping shoulders, stoic expressions and silence on the court used to worry her coach but Ghosh has been able to heave a sigh of relief now that Akula maintains a much more confident body language and lets out the occasional shout to pep herself up.

Since her golden run in 2022 when she became the national champion, Akula has capitalised on the promise she showed.

She had an impressive outing in her first-ever Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, and put in a decent show in the women’s team event at the Asian Games in 2022. Buoyed by her recent run and break into the top 50, Akula’s now getting set for the Paris Olympics.