It was an ordinary Thursday evening at the Kamath household in Bengaluru. Archana Kamath, the world No 103 paddler, was enjoying a much needed break from the chaotic world of table tennis.

She was spending time with her family when news trickled in that she had been selected to play for the Indian women’s team at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Her family members rejoiced, but Kamath’s mind raced back to memories of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

She had been named in the squad that was set to compete in Birmingham, only for a Delhi High Court order which removed her from the team to make way for Diya Chitale. Kamath herself filed a petition with the Karnataka High Court challenging the decision, but it was dismissed and she had to miss out on the Commonwealth Games.

The two years that followed were unpleasant. Kamath went from being ranked as the fourth best women’s doubles pair in the world alongside Manika Batra, to being completely out of favour. Her parents – Girish and Anuradha, formed the first line of defence for Kamath during this tumultuous period.

“It was nice to be with my parents when I first got the news [being named in the Olympic team],” said Kamath in a conversation with Scroll. “They have been very invested [in my career] and put in a lot of efforts. But the biggest factor for them at the end was that I was happy.”

There were countless moments of self-doubt and self-reflection for Kamath post the Commonwealth Games snub. She constantly questioned the point of her playing.

But with her parents and brother forming a solid support system, and her work with psychologist Shaantanu Kulkarni, Kamath held steady. She immersed herself in training and playing as much as she could to put the disappointment behind. That’s the only way she knew how to get out this tough time.

“I would be lying if I say I never had those thoughts [of quitting the sport],” said Kamath. “I had some difficult times, but I just kept trying to turn up. Do something and not be bogged down.”

To help her to turn up regularly, Kamath decided to switch bases. She realised the need for a change in environment to keep herself focused. It was then that she reached out to Anshul Garg – a former national medallist-turned-coach.

Kamath and Garg go a long way. The two first met around a decade back, when Kamath was a sub-junior player, for a short 10-day training camp. Though they never worked together over the next ten years, the two kept in touch. So when Kamath felt the need to change things up, Garg was the first person she contacted.

“She was very shattered when we first started working together,” said Garg to this publication. “She did not want to play anymore. But I don’t know from where she had the thought to train with me.”

Garg agreed and Kamath soon left the comfort of the Prakash Padukone Academy in her home city and shifted to Noida in late 2022. In the confines of Garg’s academy – more than 2000 km away from her home – the duo started meticulously plotting her comeback.

Kamath started training five to six hours a day. Each session was planned down to the last minute. There were sessions dedicated to footwork, tactical drills, serves, receiving, constant matches for practice. There was an increased focus on developing Kamath’s backhand play – an area they identified needed improvement early on in their association.

Garg got Kamath to spar with any and every type of player he could find in his roster – from left-handers, to defensive and attacking players, to seven-time national champion Abhishek Yadav and junior national champion Lalrin Puia. The idea was to keep the paddler prepared for whatever her opponents might throw at her at the highest level.

They also roped in Jai Sanan as a strength and conditioning coach.

“Apart from regular gym work, my strength and conditioning also involves lots of plyometrics,” explained Kamath. “It includes a lot of jumps and sprint in a short time to increase speed and strength.”

Garg knew just pure training would not cut it for the 23-year-old paddler if she was to break back into the Indian team. She had to play constantly – not just internationally, but domestically.

The lack of domestic tournaments and national ranking was why Kamath missed out on the Commonwealth Games. She was ranked high in the world, but the Table Tennis Federation of India’s selection policy is such that domestic tournaments and rankings have more weightage. Kamath was was focused on maintaining her world ranking, but it meant that she was placed below 30 in the national rankings, which eventually brought her downfall.

There was a conscious effort made this time to ensure that Kamath played as many national tournaments as possible, whilst also appearing in the World Table Tennis circuit. The fact that Garg could travel with her to tournaments meant that the training aspect was not compromised on while competing. They found the perfect balance.

Kamath dominated the national circuit last season, winning two of the last three national ranking tournaments in Vadodara and Panchkula. She defeated Ayhika Mukherjee, who she eventually pipped with a higher world rank to be named in the Olympic team, in both finals.

In the other tournament, Kamath got the better of Mukherjee in the semi-finals, before finishing runner up to Sreeja Akula, who has enjoyed a splendid rise in stature since in the Commonwealth Games two years back.

While the likes of Akula, Mukherjee, and Manika Batra made the world take notice by defeating the Chinese players ranked among top 3 in the world, Kamath grinded it out without making the headlines but also registered victories over higher-ranked players of her own.

“It gives the rest of us confidence that one of us was able to do it [her compatriots beating Chinese paddlers],” said Kamath. “It works as an extra motivation to better myself and raise my game to that level.”

Having made it to the Indian women’s team for the Paris Olympics, Kamath knows it is only a job half-done.

“It is a great honour [to represent India at the Olympics], but it also comes with great responsibility,” said Kamath. “I am grateful for what I have received as a result of the efforts I have put in the last few years, but it is just an opportunity. This is where I have to try and be my best.”

From once having doubts about if she wanted to continue playing the game, Kamath now has her targets set.