In sport, there are many factors that make for an intriguing journey. None, though, tug at the heart strings like a battle against the odds. 28-year-old Sanil Shetty has fought many a battle on the table tennis circuit but his biggest battle was fought off the table.

Diagnosed with a hole in the heart, a then seven-year-old Sanil was searching for some stimulus to make life worth living. Inspiration came from home as the initial success of his elder brother Sachin on the junior table tennis circuit, was enough to motivate younger brother Sanil.

Looking at his brother’s passion and perseverance, Sachin soon gave up his own nascent table tennis career and became a coach at the age of 21. The brothers have since stood together through many highs and lows.

Stories of siblings are not uncommon in sport, but few have such high stakes. For Sanil, Sachin’s contribution has proved vital, and not just in terms of titles on the circuit. Since taking up the sport, Sanil rose to become India’s national table tennis champion in 2014, and the first man from Mumbai to do it since Kamlesh Mehta in 1995, before picking up the team bronze at the Commonwealth games.

After years of hardship, the Shetty brothers are finally reaping their rewards. Sachin is sharpening his skills as a coach. In the ongoing Ultimate Table Tennis League, Sanil is a player for the Falcons TT, while Sachin is a coach of the RP-SG Mavericks.

Sachin has trained the junior national team as well. “Personally, the UTT has given me great exposure and it is a learning phase for me. With Germany’s Peter Engel it has been a great experience. We have a good rapport till date. From a player to coach the journey has been sensational. It has been almost 16 years now since I took up coaching,” Sachin said The Field.

Days of struggle 

“It has been a rollercoaster ride,” Sanil told The Field.

Sachin took up the sport early on and started looking at it as a career after initial success. However, for Sanil, even taking up a sporting activity was unimaginable.

“I could never take part in any sporting activity due to my condition. There was a domestic helper who used to pick me up from school because I could barely walk and had breathing problems,” Sanil recalls.

However, it all changed the day Sachin brought home a ‘big trophy’ according to Sanil. Sachin had won a local table tennis tournament and the trophy he brought home helped Sanil make up his mind to take up the sport. “My brother has been my mentor throughout. When I started he was also playing. When I saw him get a big trophy I decided to play table tennis,” said Sanil.

But, the family knew that the road ahead was not an easy one. “He was six years old when we found out that Sanil had a hole in his heart and the doctors said nothing can be done. But we went for ayurvedic treatment and never told anyone about it. We kept him busy with drawing class,” said Sachin.

“When I was seven I started working on my endurance and stamina building, along with my ayurvedic and homepathy treatments. Then I started playing table tennis,” added Sanil.

However, there came a stage when their parents could not afford the expenses required to become a table tennis player. “My father worked in a bank and it was difficult for my father to support two children to play table tennis. It was very difficult. So I took a call that Sanil should get all the support that is required to make it big. My parents supported my decision as well,” said Sachin.

That is when Sachin decided to take up coaching. “I started coaching at the age of 21 because Sanil started playing the sport. Ten years ago the financial condition was not very good and table tennis is an expensive sport. So I wanted to support my brother because I am the elder one and also age was on his side. I knew he could achieve great things in the sport. So coaching began for me back then.”

Reaping the rewards

In these 16 years, Sanil has come up by leaps and bounds. Not only has he steadily climbed up the ladder on the circuit, but has also overcome his ailment. “Now I can run for an hour and play for three. My condition is completely cured now. I struggled till the age of 11 with the condition before it finally started having minimal impact on my body,” Sanil said.

Sanil is currently having a brilliant run as his team is topping the charts in the UTT. “I won two singles and lost two singles. I beat the World No 31 and World No 29 Aruna Quadri. In doubles I won three matches and lost one. Overall the last five months have been great. In February I was World No 280 and now I am World No 201. Next month I will probably be between World No 150 to 160. So I have jumped around 120 spots. It has been a great achievement personally,” said Sanil.

However, when the brothers met on the court, Sanil finally got the better of his elder brother after trying for two long years. “I had faced my brother in the Mumbai Table Tennis league where he is coach for Phantom Stars and I play for Cool Smashers. For two years his team has been beating me. However, this time I beat his team in the UTT. It was our first game if I am not mistaken.”

Sachin has mixed feelings about the defeat, “No regrets whatsoever. I am so happy for him. He is doing very well. It is a big confidence boost for him. He is beating the top players in the world. Personally I am happy for him but professionally I am very upset.”

For Sanil however, the job isn’t done yet. “After UTT I am going to play domestic tournaments in Delhi. Then I play the Nigeria Open, Bulgaria Open, Czech Open and the German league. I want to play Olympics 2020 and also play the Commonwealth Games next year. I want to break into the top-40 in the world. I have to go all out to achieve my dreams.”