Historic. That would be the word that best describes the year 2018 for Indian table tennis.

An incredible performance at the Commonwealth Games saw Manika Batra emerging as the star of the show, with medals in all four events that she was a part of, including the first ever women’s singles gold for India.

The men’s team, soon after, produced India’s best result in 33 years at the World Team Table Tennis Championships, finishing 13th overall. Then came the Asian Games. Inspired by Achanta Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, India defeated Japan in the men’s team event quarter-final to win the nation’s first ever medal. Sharath Kamal and Batra added a mixed doubles bronze as the icing on the cake.

Overseeing this incredible run of results was an Italian at the helm of affairs. Coach Massimo Costantini, who returned to coach India in September 2016 on a two-year contract as the head coach, built up a head of steam steadily, which bore fruit this year in fine style.

It was no surprise, then, that the Table Tennis Federation of India was reportedly keen on extending his tenure till the 2020 Olympics but the Italian has decided against extending his contract with the Indian team, which expires on September 30, citing personal reasons.

The decision had been taken from his end before the historic Asian Games but the players were not told about it until after the event was over. Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, the man who’s rapid rise has coincided with Costantini’s second stint, told Scroll that it is going to be a big loss for Indian table tennis.

“He is going to be missed a lot. We respect his decision, of course because it cannot be easy to leave after the success we have had. It must have been tough for him,” said Sathiyan. “He left us a message on our group before leaving to Italy, saying he will always be available if we needed him and told us to help each other out as a team.”

Harmeet Desai, the 25-year-old who impressed at the Asian Games alongside Sathiyan and Sharath, told Scroll that his first reaction was one of shock.

“It was a big shock for every one of us when we heard the news. In the last two years, Indian TT has reached new heights because of him and so many players have improved under him. Sad that such a great coach will be leaving us now,” Desai said in a telephonic interaction from Poland.

A man who made lives easier

So what Costantini succeed with this team? For starters, the 60-year-old made the lives of these paddlers a whole lot easier by allowing them to focus on just their games.

“He was the perfect bridge between the players and the federation and other governing bodies. The best bit was his planning. He chalked out schedules for the entire team in great detail, and helped us get the exposure we needed to improve without having to worry about what we do off the table,” said Sathiyan, who was in New Delhi to receive his Arjuna Award on Tuesday, before returning to Germany for his stint at the Bundesliga.

What sparked this run of form was also the style of Costantini’s working.

“He brought the European style of training and playing regularly on the circuit to our teams. What was missing in India was that — the planning aspect to make sure we play the right events on the pro tour, on a regular basis. For seniors and for juniors. He even told us he has chalked out an entire plan for 2019 before leaving. And he scheduled training camps at the right time, and right place. (The team trained in China before Asian Games where they sparred with Chinese paddlers and it helped them a great deal, Sathiyan had said earlier).

“He got the funding from the government too, to make this all happen. He was the one-point contact for us and the whole experience was made smooth for the players. We just had to worry about performing on the table,” said Sathiyan.

For Desai, Costantini’s man-management skills and the ability to provide equal attention to everyone in the team, made a personal difference.

“His attention was spread between all players equally. And most importantly, he believed in us and that we could beat the top players in the world. We started to believe in ourselves as we participated more on international tours. And tactically he made us much better. For me personally, he made me improve my blocking and receiving game while made me more consistent on the attacking aspect, which could be dangerous for any opponent on a given day. I worked a lot with him on that and it showed in my results,” Desai said.

All the top paddlers have their personal coaches who influence their technique and for Costantini, it was a case of working in tandem with that. He had spoken about his focus on improving the existing skill-set the players instead of tweaking their technique, and just to focus on making their strengths, even stronger.

“Manika Batra has a special game,” Costantini had told ITTF in an interview. “She uses pimples and this makes her game complicated for most opponents. To find the proper mechanism to perform her skills and combine in the game according to her opponent’s skills took time (...) I reversed the way many coaches work by fixing the problems of the players. I forgot the problems and focused on the strength of the players and make it better.”

And make them better, he did.

As Sathiyan said, it is not going to be easy to replace the void left by Costantini. The players’ confidence, on a high after the sort of year they have had, will continue to depend on their own results and they have the backing of the federation and their coaches.

But Costantini brought that all together to create the perfect storm and that’s a skill that won’t be easy to replicate as Indian table tennis prepares for a new chapter.