To most observers, Archana Kamath’s victory over Manika Batra in the semi-finals of the Senior National Championships 2018 in Cuttack was the big moment for the 18-year-old from Karnataka. The young paddler went on to win her first senior singles national title.
However, Archana herself points to her round-of-32 match against Niveditha Balusuri of Telangana as the big moment. She was down 0-3 and staring at defeat when she somehow found the resolve and the game to fight back to victory.
“It was a very tough match,” said Kamath. “I really was struggling against her game and it looked like it was all over but, somehow, I managed to fight back at win. It was important because the win gave me a lot of self-belief.”
That self-belief was vital because she would eventually run into Manika Batra. Much has been written about the variations that Batra spins into her game. Given how well the Delhi paddler has played over the last year, she was clearly the player to beat at the championships.
“I was really happy just to get the chance to play Manika,” said Kamath. “When India was playing in the Commonwealth Games, I remember just jumping up and down on the bed [during Batra’s matches]. It only survived because it was a strong bed. So, to me, playing her was a big deal.”
However, that didn’t mean Kamath was overawed. Her attacking game constantly kept Batra on the back foot. A great believer in the simple tactic of third-ball attack, Kamath found her range early in the match and didn’t let go.
“There are a lot of subtle variations in Manika’s game but it can never be easy. You have to be very consistent to beat her. Luckily, I was,” she said.
The 11-7, 11-7, 11-7, 6-11, 11-8 win over Batra gave her even more confidence. The scoreline also reflects how she managed to stay ahead and keep her composure at vital points.
The final against Krittwika Sinha Roy of West Bengal was expected to be another tight one.
“I had never won against Krittwika. She is a very tough opponent for me.” said Kamath.
But the 12-10, 6-11, 11-9, 12-10, 7-11, 11-3 scoreline shows how Kamath’s mental toughness won the day. She was trailing 4-7 in the third and again 6-10 in the fourth but managed to come on on top. The close games took a lot out of Sinha Roy and saw her lose the last game 11-3.
Archana credits her improving mental toughness to the 2018 Youth Olympics, where she had become the first Indian to reach the semi-finals. She had lost to China’s Yingsha Sun in semi-finals but her unexpected run taught her a few lessons.
“I think it was a very good experience for me,” she said. “Most importantly, the results there taught me to believe in myself; taught me that things can change at any time and that is why it is important not to give up.”
Most would agree that this is an important lesson in life and sport – one that Kamath seems to have learned early.
The early years
Kamath started playing table-tennis when she was nine. She had gone to her uncle’s place in Mangalore during her vacation and he happened to have a table-tennis table.
Her brother, Abhinav, took to the game in a big way and kind of dragged her into it as well.
“He loved the game much more than me and I just happened to be there. But he was very nice to me as well. Sometimes, he would deliberately lose to me so that I wouldn’t cry,” said Kamath.
But those victories, as fake as they were, kept Kamath interested in the sport. By the time she was 13, she had already started playing on the senior circuit.
She won her first U-12 and also an U-18 State title in 2011, but shot into the limelight in 2013, when she won an unprecedented 30 titles across various age categories at the Karnataka State Ranking Table Tennis Tournaments.
She continued to find success at the junior level and was eventually chosen to represent the Indian team as well.
Based on her performance at the Asian Cadet & Junior Championships, she was selected (only Indian) to represent TEAM ASIA at the ITTF World Cadet Challenge in Barbados in Oct 2014. She won a Team Silver medal there, and Kamath herself finished in a creditable ninth position in individual event, with three notable victories over higher-ranked players, including a world No 8 from Brazil.
She also became one of the youngest players to win a U-21 Youth Girls National title in November 2014 at the age of 14 years and five months.
In 2015, she became the first Indian girl to make the quarter-finals of the ITTF World Junior Circuit Finals in Indore. Success has come early to her but her parents (eye specialists Girish and Anuradha Kamath) and the coaching team have kept her grounded.
When not with the national team, she works with former India international Bona Thomas John (with whom she hits a lot at the Cantonment Rail Club) and Aloysius Sagayraj. When she is abroad, she trains with Peter Engel. The one thing they want her to do the most is be a little more circumspect with her game.
“I just love attacking,” she said. “Every ball is an opportunity to hit the top-spin. Sometimes, the coaches tell me to tone things down but that is not easy to do for me.”
Perhaps, she will find that reserve with more experience but, for now, she’s flying high and loving it.