For young paddler Mudit Dani, there was a sense of joy even as he had to abruptly return home to India in March after the International Table Tennis Federation suspended all events due to the coronavirus pandemic.
After winning his first medal on the senior circuit back in December at the US Open, he had gained momentum and was growing in confidence with every passing tournament. Dani was convinced that by the time the next ITTF rankings would be out in April, he would be in the top 200, after calculating points with the help of his coach – veteran Kamlesh Mehta. What he wished would come true.
Last month, the youngster broke into the top 200 of the ITTF rankings for the first time in his career, making him the sixth-highest ranked Indian. Just two years ago, when he decided to become a professional table tennis athlete, he was ranked 867.
“It was big positive for me, coming back home into quarantine knowing that I’d be in top 200 of the rankings,” Dani told Scroll.in.
“I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me that I’d be here two years ago. It has been an amazing journey for me,” said the 20-year-old, who is being mentored by eight-time national champion Mehta.
Dani won his first table tennis medal at a Mumbai ranking event when he was just 10, but began training seriously only a year later. Dani was torn between table tennis and swimming and had to chose one of the two disciplines as he couldn’t focus on both simultaneously.
He eventually chose the racquet sport as the table tennis offered variety in terms of tactics and training, compared to swimming which he considered repetitive. There has been no looking back since then.
He soon began making waves on the junior circuit and, in 2015, became only the third Indian player after Soumyajit Ghosh and Harmeet Desai to break into the top-10 of the ITTF World Junior Boys’ Circuit standings. Dani would go on to represent India at 16 World Junior Circuit events, winning 20 medals across singles, doubles and teams events.
Incidentally, Dani wasn’t sure of becoming a full-time professional but his heroics at the junior level gave him the confidence to make the jump. A year after moving to New York to pursue his bachelor of science management degree, Dani finally decided to go professional in the summer of 2018. The Mumbai boy shifted base to Germany and has been training in Europe since then.
“There used to be a lot of breaks due to studies and family occasions but once I moved to Europe, there was a single focus that table tennis is my life,” said Dani, who is set to graduate next year from New York University.
“Even other players from the national team have based themselves in Europe. And being able to see what top players do, from preparation to training, has taught me a lot. It takes the doubt from your mind and gives you the belief you can compete with them,” added the 20-year-old who was ranked 867 when he moved to Germany.
Dani, who made his debut in the professional circuit at the Nigeria Open in July 2018, clinched his first medal on the senior circuit at the US Open in December last year, securing bronze in doubles alongside Canada’s Marko Medjugorac.
However, the journey on the senior circuit has been far from smooth sailing. A disappointing show at the Paraguay Open in September last year was a huge reality check for Dani, where he lost to lower-ranked opponents.
Dani reveals his game got stagnated as he began feeling the pressure in those months preceding the tournament and was growing anxious about results. He stopped playing tournaments for two months after the Paraguay Open and trained hard to regroup himself.
“I was thinking a lot about the results and not really the process,” he recalled.
“I sort of put too much pressure on myself. It was never my coach, parents or anyone around me but my own expectations where I was always thinking about the next step. I hurried and that’s what put me off I think.”
Dani notices a massive transformation in his game since before and feels he needs to work on his physical fitness to perform at the top level. Once a passive stroke player who would wait to pounce on opponents mistakes, he has now developed his game into an all-out attacking style as the nature of the sport has become aggressive.
The rankings may signify the kind of progress Dani has made in the senior circuit so far and he wants more.
“I have just been focusing more on my game all this while,” he said.
“This is just the start. Interesting to see where I can go from here but it is just a little bit of the work of the last two years and the sacrifices I’ve put in.”