The first thing that strikes you while talking to Manav Thakkar is his confidence. The bespectacled 18-year-old has already scaled a peak which no other Indian even managed to come close to when he was ranked number one in the ITTF world U-18 rankings in February this year.

Thakkar had a brilliant 2017, bagging two gold in Slovenia and Indian Open while finishing second in the Thailand Open and the junior circuit finals.

In April this year, he qualified for the 2018 Youth Olympics to be held in Buenos Aires on October 6 and insists that he would want a perfect end to his junior sojourn with a gold medal in Argentina. “I want to end my junior career by winning gold at the Youth Olympic Games. It would be the perfect end because next year on I will only play in the senior circuit and youth category,” said the 18-year-old, who joins Avik Das (2010) and Abhishek Yadav (2014) as the third Indian men’s singles player to qualify for the event.

Tryst with senior circuit  

However, Thakkar has already set his sight on the senior circuit and recently played two pro-tour events in Thailand and Hong Kong.

He was the only Indian to reach the round-of-16 in his first senior event in Bangkok with the likes of Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Harmeet Desai and Sanil Shetty losing in the earlier rounds. Thakkar was beaten by France’s Bastien Rembert 4-3 (3-11, 11-8, 8-11, 10-12, 11-9, 10-12, 11-13).

In Hong Kong Open, however, he lost in the final qualifying round to Japan’s Yoshimura Kazuhiro in the final qualifying match 4 -3 (5-11, 7-11, 11-6, 11-9, 11-5, 10-12, 11-9).

“If you look at my defeats, I lost both matches in the deciding game with 11-9 and 11-13. Kazuhiro went on to win the tournament and that in itself says something I believe. So I am happy with the way I have begun my career in the senior level,” Thakkar told The Field.

Training harder

Thakkar feels that the major difference between the junior and senior circuit is the mental aspect of the game. “During crucial moments of the match I became blank and that allowed by opponent to get the better of me. I didn’t know what to do or how to close the game when it mattered most. Given the experience my opponents have, they spotted my weakness and beat me. If the same match took place in the junior circuit, I would win because there the mental pressure isn’t that much,” said Thakkar.

Another aspect is the speed and strength of the senior players especially the Chinese and Japanese. “They are super smooth in movement as well and are always quick on their feet,” he said.

Thakkar knows he has to hit the ground running if he is to beat the best in the business. Hence, he is going to sit down with his nutritionist and physical trainer and work on fitness and muscles strength.

Thakkar, who was a vegetarian since birth, has already made a switch in his diet. The Surat-born youngster has started eating eggs and meat as a part of his muscle building program. “I have started eating eggs and meat so that I can build muscle. I don’t mind chicken but if I am to consume fish or some other meat, it has to be mixed with something like pasta,” said Thakkar, who has started consuming sunflower seeds for strengthening his bones and has cut down on fried food.

Training abroad

While the 18-year-old is looking after his diet and training program, the technical aspects of the game are being improved under the guidance of India coach Massimo Costantini, who is also taking him to Europe for a one-month training program.

“Manav has big potential and possesses many skills. His core game is to control and counter-attack. He needs to start thinking big and he needs to think that he can achieve more than a Sharath Kamal,” said Costantini.

Thakkar, on his part, is prepared to absorb and implement everything that the Italian is looking to imbibe in his game. “Max always tells me that TT is all about good placement and deception. I should know where the ball should land on the board and how to defend it. Speed and power won’t help if you can’t place the ball properly and be deceptive. He always tells me to experiment with my shots during the start of a game because that way I can learn as well,” he said.

Thakkar does experiment against weaker opponents or when he is leading 3-0. However, he is cautious with his approach so that he does not end up losing the match. “I try various shots and techniques so that I get used to it during tournaments. However, during a crucial match, I make sure I finish off the game immediately,” said Thakkar, who would get a chance to try out some of his experiments during the Ultimate Table Tennis league that starts later this month.

Thakkar had picked up the importance of warm up and pre-match training routine while watching some of the top stars in action during the first edition and it would be interesting to see what new dimension the 18-year-old can add to his game during Season 2.