In a certain sense, Indian table tennis has been stagnant for a while. Achanta Sharath Kamal has been consistently winning medals in the Commonwealth and Asian Games. However, Sharath or rather India is yet to win a major table tennis tournaments across the globe.
However, there is now a great hope that Manav Thakkar might just change that. The 18-year-old recently created history by becoming the first Indian to be crowned World No 1 in the sport... he achieved this feat by topping the charts in the under-18 category.
Thakkar added another feather to the cap by bagging silver in the ITTF World Junior Circuit Finals in Luxembourg last week. “I believe it is a start of something special,” said Thakkar.
However, a year ago, Thakkar never imagined that he would win silver in the ITTF World Junior Finals let alone being World No 1. Last year he bowed out in the quarter-finals of the event and finished fifth. “My fitness wasn’t great and I used to get tired easily. My stamina wasn’t at par with other athletes too,” said Thakkar.
It was then that he decided to focus on fitness and train as vigorously as possible.
A year later, Thakkar has grown like few others. A bronze medal in the senior nationals, five gold medals and silver in the junior nationals are just a tip of the iceberg.
Training, training and more training
Thakkar was hurting from his quarter-final loss at the ITTF World Junior finals last year. He was looking for answers; a way to not just compete but to win.
“I used to get pressurized in international or big tournaments because of the lack of experience. Plus the conditions were also different. Whenever the opponent used to get a lead, I used to mentally feel that I will lose the match. I always used to depend on my start, play aggressively and that led to errors,” said Thakkar.
However, with Italian coach Massimo Constantini coming into the picture, Thakkar began working on his weakness and fitness. “With Costantini coming in as coach, my entire game changed. I started working on my fitness and agility. I began running and steadily improved my stamina,” said Thakkar.
His fitness exercises included 35 to 40 minutes of long distance running. He would then follow it up with rounds of frog jump and duck walk exercises. However, the start of the entire fitness regime would begin with by skipping a minimum of 500 times. This isn’t extreme but it tells you where Thakkar was earlier and success might tell him, he needs to push himself even more.
To get the mental aspect of the game right, Thakkar started working with a sports psychologist. “The psychologist helped me to take it game by game and we started setting small goals, which improved my mental strength. This helped against Chinese and Japanese opponents,” said Thakkar.
A humble beginning
Thakkar is India’s No 1 in the youth boys and junior boys category. He is ranked No 2 in the men’s category. But his challenge isn’t India; his challenge is the world. And Thakkar, who is currently training in SAI Patiala, knows that he has a long way to go.
Born in Surat, Thakkar began playing the sport when he was five after watching his parents play at home. “I was shorter than the table but still managed to return the ball three four times,” said Thakkar, who also was a skater back then. At the age of six, his parents decided to encourage him towards table tennis given his flair for the sport. He was initially guided by his childhood coach Vahed Malubhai. In 2011, he shifted to Ajmer and joined the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board (PSPB).
“When I shifted to Ajmer, I used to miss my friends and parents a lot. I started suffering from home sickness,” said Thakkar.
After battling home sickness for almost three months, Thakkar finally found his stride and starting winning under-12 and under-14 events.
Now battling with the likes of Harmeet Desai and Sharath Kamal, Thakkar knows that there is still work to be done. “Harmeet Desai and Sharath Kamal guide me with their inputs. So that helps me a lot in improving and fine tuning my game,” said Thakkar.
Senior World No 1?
Thakkar now wants to maintain his ranking and also improve his game further so that he can rise in the senior men’s world ranking. However, that is no easy feat to achieve.
“The progress he made has been exceptional. He has created history by becoming World No 1, a feat no Indian has ever achieved across the board. His strength is his consistency and focus. It is difficult to beat him because of his consistency plus his service and receiving game has also improved. Now he has to work on his physical fitness and power hitting,” said 8-time former India national champ Kamlesh Mehta.
World No 60 Harmeet Desai backed Thakkar to be a future World No 1 in the international circuit given the talent he has.
“He is going to the best in India very soon plus he is also taking India to the next level. It is going to be difficult for junior players to catch up with him. Now even they will have to improve their game. The Challenge now is to get better. He will have to get out of India and play with different players across the globe. Plus his physical fitness also has to improve,” said Desai.
With Chinese and Japanese players dominating the world rankings across categories, the road ahead for Thakkar is a tough one.
“In Japan and China, players work on their fitness when they turn 16 for almost four years and hence they dominate the spot despite being 21 or 22 years old,” said Desai. “However, tactically he is on the right path plus his variations also are tough to crack. If he improves his fitness, he can be World No 1 as well in the senior circuit.”