Expectations do funny things in sport. For Indian table tennis, the last two years have been thoroughly memorable. Medals galore across disciplines at the Commonwealth Games, historic performances at the Asian Games, significant improvement in rankings and what not. But most of these achievements were pleasant surprises, with players punching above their weight and making their presence felt at the global stage.

The 2020 ITTF World Team Qualification event in Gondomar, Portugal was different in that one aspect. It was, arguably, the first international tournament where the Indian team — men’s, especially — was expected to seal their ticket to Tokyo Olympics. Nine spots were at stake and the Indian men were seeded fifth. They were coming into the event on the back of achieving their best ITTF ranking, too.

But, after three days of matches in Portugal, when the team should have either confirmed their quota at Olympics by finishing in the top eight or been playing in the final stage on Sunday, they were instead left to reflect on missed opportunities.

Defeat against Slovenia in the round of 16 in the first stage was not expected but, perhaps, understandable given they were seeded 11th and they had a rising star in 21-year-old Darko Jorgic who played out of his skins in the singles ties against Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Achanta Sharath Kamal.

But it is the defeat in the first round of the second stage against Czech Republic, where India were the highest seeds remaining, that must hurt more.

And it does, according to veteran Sharath Kamal who has been to three Olympic Games but has also experienced the heartbreak of missing out in 2012. He knows a thing or two about these qualification campaigns and the disappointment in his voice was unmissable when he spoke to Scroll.in from Portugal.

“I don’t quite know,” was Sharath’s first response when asked what went wrong for India and it was followed by a significant pause as he collected his thoughts.

“It’s just one of those tournaments which I would not like to remember.”

Golden chance missed

While the women’s team had a tough draw to go with no real depth in talent, the men’s team had two top-50 players, and the junior world No 1 in their ranks. Harmeet Desai is no slouch either. That is why it is quite telling that the men’s and women’s team exited at similar stages (credit goes to Manika Batra and Co there, for almost defying the odds).

While the men’s campaign started with a 3-0 win against Luxembourg, the two defeats since to the European teams came as a reality check.

“We didn’t deliver when it was necessary,” said Sharath, taking his time to reflect upon the last couple of days. “We had our chances against Slovenia. Darko played fantastic, and I couldn’t stop him despite doing my best. You always feel you could have played a different shot at different points in the game after a defeat, but not after a win. But against Czech Republic...(pauses) just majorly screwed up. That was probably because we were coming into the game after a loss, and the tournament had only spot [for Olympics] remaining...that all added up.”

Especially disappointing in Gondomar was Sathiyan’s form. Having taken over as the country’s top-ranked paddler from Sharath, a lot was riding on the 27-year-old in terms of taking the team past the finish line.

But as pumped up as he ever is on the court, Sathiyan’s game deserted him at crucial times with the lowlight being the defeat against world No 166 Polansky of Czech Republic.

“I was not playing my best,” Sathiyan told Scroll.in. “I lost a lot of close games...11-9s, 12-10s which did not go my way. I am used to converting these deuce games. But I failed to take my chances and take the right decisions. I played it safe sometimes, instead of going for the kill. As a team, however, we fought for every single point even if things were not going our way.”

Indian men's team's results in Gondomar

Player Matches played (Singles / Doubles) Matches won  / Matches lost
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran 4 (4/0) 1/3
Achanta Sharath Kamal 6 (3/3) 4/2
Harmeet Desai 4 (1/3) 2/2

As the leader of the unit, Sharath understood the pressure that comes with these major tournaments.

“It happens. This is why these tournaments are talked about so much,” he said. “I know how hard it is to recoup after losses and disappointments, I have been here before (2012). I haven’t yet talked to [Sathiyan] in detail about the performances, which I will do in due time, but I will explain to him how these matches need different kind of preparation, with the tournament dynamics being completely different. That will come with experience.”

Lack of overseas coach

The first and obvious reason for India’s results could be seen as the lack of a full-time foreign coach. Ever since Massimo Costantini’s departure after the Asian Games, the Indian players have been fending for themselves without a full-time national overseas coach. In Portugal, they had former national champion Soumyadeep Roy helping them out.

But no, neither Sathiyan nor Sharath were willing to give the situation with the coach as an excuse.

“Of course, going into the Olympics we do need a [full-time] coach,” Sharath said. “We cannot just go there with makeshift appointments. At the same time, I read a report where the opening line was that we lost due to the lack of coach. Now, that’s definitely not the case. Look at our results in 2018, 2019...and we have a junior world No 1. That does not just happen.”

Sathiyan added, “After Asian Games it’s been one and a half years and the team has achieved its best ever ranking. Our individual rankings have gone up. Just after one bad tournament, to say with a coach we could have done better is totally unfair. Things cannot be perfect in sport all the time, we have to accept defeats and work through it.”

But the importance of having someone like Costantini is not lost on Sharath.

“For instance, before CWG we had close to 25 days of training over a period of 6 months where our complete focus was on the event. For this event, we had 10 days in Chennai and five days in Germany. That’s not enough,” he said.

Sathiyan concurred with that view, saying that a coach like Costantini, in this situation, would have been an added boost.

Indeed, India were not the only seeded teams to feel the pressure. Great Britain (seeded seventh) met with a similar fate even before India’s defeat against the Czechs. In the women’s draw too, the mighty South Koreans had to earn the last of the nine spots available. It is just the nature of the beast.

Importantly, qualification for the team event would have guaranteed two slots in the singles event at Tokyo 2020 as well, freeing up the rest of the calendar for Sathiyan and Sharath.

The focus immediately shifts to the singles quotas for Sathiyan who said, “I will start looking at videos to find out where I went wrong in terms of my technique and that is the learning for me. That is how I have always improved. I I have to go back to the drawing board again with coach Raman. We do have a great chance to qualify in singles.”

For Sharath Kamal, aiming to go to his fourth Olympics, things are a little more complicated.

“I need to keep my world rankings which is very important,” the 37-year-old said. “Asian qualification has been made tougher and for me the safest way is to keep my world ranking, so I just called my wife to say we are not going to be seeing each other much till May. My schedule just got completely turned on its head.”