In 1988, when eight-time national champion Kamlesh Mehta, the first star of Indian table tennis, participated in the Olympics Games, he first came to know what nutrition and physical training actually was.
In 2008, when Achanta Sharath Kamal, the game-changer who revolutionised Indian table tennis and eventually broke Mehta’s record for national titles, went to Olympics, he had just a couple of basic training camps in India and Europe.
Cut to 2021 and four Indian paddlers – Sharath Kamal, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Manika Batra and Sutirtha Mukherjee – booked their Tokyo Games tickets for singles. To go with that, a mixed doubles berth was sealed by Sharath Kamal and Batra, beating the top seeds at the Asian qualification event as the icing on the cake. It was a significant achievement, yet somehow it felt like an expected development given the years of development in training, exposure and success.
“When I qualified for the Olympics at the age of 28, I had no inkling what scientific training was. I worked with Dr Swati Piramal at a high performance gym in Mumbai and that was the first time my body, nutrition, calories were analysed,” Mehta told Scroll.in.
This time, Sharath began his preparation for the Tokyo Games back in November 2019, and then in October 2020 when the pandemic forced a year’s delay.
“I have now understood when I do start to peak, what kind of training and how many matches I need to be in the best shape. It has become a lot more scientific, working on the technical and physical aspect to sustain at these major tournaments,” Sharath explained.
This is but a simple illustration of the change in the sport in India over the last few years. Table tennis in India is not often spoken of when talking about sporting success. There are no world No 1s or world champions yet. But the celebration comes from small yet significant achievements.
There are six Indians – four men and two women – in the top-100 of the senior world rankings, the men’s team is in the top-10. Manav Thakkar had also reached the top of Under-21 rankings in 2020.
Sharath has been the undisputed face of Indian table tennis for close to two decades now, from the time he became India’s first gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games in 2006. That fact that he is still going strong at 38 is yet another reflection of the evolution of the sport and the system behind it.
Gradual upward curve
When exactly did the balance swing? Like most things in life, it has been a gradual change, growing into a substantial shift.
Even globally, there has been a sea of change in all aspects of the sport: ball, tables, flooring, scoring systems even racquets glue and kits. In India, the training, administration, circuit, ranking system, coaching is transforming for the better. But this evolution has escalated in the last decade or so.
“During our time we used to get approximately one or two maximum three exposures in a year. Table tennis was not part of Olympics or Commonwealth Games, the World and Asian Championship were once in two years,” said Mehta. “We had only a restricted number of tournaments and there wasn’t much known of circuit events that were happening for the world.”
Now, the top players not only take part in the legacy leagues like the Bundesliga in Germany, but also train abroad for most part. For instance, Diya Chitale, at 16, was already training in Germany and Japan. Sathiyan has cut his teeth in Germany, and has had a fruitful stint in Japan too; he has constantly established himself as one of the best in the country in the last few years and is heading to the Olympic Games for the first time as a culmination of all that.
A vital factor has been the growth of technology that has made sport more professional and tutelage accessible. Table tennis has benefitted from this especially, given India is not a traditional powerhouse in the sport.
Sharath says it was about 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, which saw a marked shift. Thakkar pinpoints to 2011 as the year he and his academically-inclined parents saw the scope of sport in the country as a career.
The common factor of that time period is how the world opened up, virtually. Internet access, sports science, video analysis equipped the current players to level up and spread the game to newer audience in pockets it wasn’t popular in.
“Because of the internet we see what a top player is training like, what strategy they are using... everything is very visible which makes access into top level sport easier. At the same time knowledge is shared via the internet, sometimes not even on purpose,” Sharath said.
Archana Kamath, rising star of the game in India, added: “It’s not isolated anymore, video of top players accessible on Youtube and it helps during tournaments so that you can prepare for matches. Even though we are far it helps to see how they play and get a basic idea to get used to their game style.”
Last year’s lockdown led to further innovations. “SAI orgnaised webinars and a couple of competitions organizsd for the top players which were available live to watch for all,” she said.
Thakkar illustrated this with the YouTube coaching classes of Timo Boll, one of the top paddlers in the world while Sharath’s career from the early 2000s to now has reflected this development too.
“When I started in the national team, it was predominantly the coach who used to take care of physical and mental fitness, video analysis and everything else. But now, we have different departments and people for these jobs to help the player perform,” the veteran said.
Mehta has witnessed this origin story from the 1980s.
“Earlier, I would go to World Championship every once in two years, and I would watch matches and try to memorise them. But I didn’t have any way of actually analysing whether I’m implementing it correctly or wrongly. But now because of technology, I can watch the best of matches in the world sitting at my home, see it again and again even in slow motion.”
This has not only made table tennis – often seen as a recreational activity – an accessible and popular sport, it has decentralised the game and the effect is seen in India.
Riding a wave
Mehta recounts how the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi prompted an investment in national infrastructure and foreign coaches. In the late 80s, India formed an independent Sports Ministry and table tennis becoming an Olympic discipline only helped. As a player and as a coach, Mehta has seen paddlers grow from being part-timers with questions over careers to bonafide national sporting stars, still employed with banks or petroleum companies.
However, if we were to chart the most definite rise in the graph, it would be the game-changing 2018 season with multiple medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games that propelled the sport to newer heights.
Incidentally, just a year before, Ultimate Table Tennis became the latest sport league in India and the role it has played in the rapid rise of the game is there to be seen. Manika Batra, the foremost female paddler in the country, had spoken about the value of the prime time exposure when it launched in 2017. “Usually no one watched table tennis, it was only shown DD sports. But everyone is watching us now, it’s a big thing for the sport to be on TV,” Batra had told Scroll.in in an interview then.
In the next year, she would fulfil the promise of being the new face of the game when she went on to become the first Indian woman to win a Commonwealth Games gold in the sport. She clinched four medals at the event, finishing on the podium in every event she was a part of.
This has been a trend that has continued for the next two seasons. “In the first season [of UTT], G Sathiyan and Manika Batra were the finds and immediately there was a big jump in the international level. In the second season, there were Archana Kamath and Manav Thakkar, who were juniors. The year after was Suthirta Mukhrjeere, who has now qualified for the Olympics. UTT has given players the right kind of exposure that is required to beat the top players,” Sharath said.
For youngsters Thakkar and Kamath, the experience has been invaluable.
“It’s good to play alongside top players and not just against them, you are looking at how they train on and off the court and learning from it. I love the atmosphere, playing in front of crowds gives confidence in international matches,” Kamath, the 20-year-old women’s national champion, said.
For Thakkar too, UTT was a personal turning point.
“It happened at the time I was transforming from junior to senior I got to play with the likes of Kristian Karlsson, Simon Gauzy as well as [work with] top coaches and senior Indian players like Sharath, Sathiyan, Amalraj, Harmeet. It gave me belief and confidence that I can win if I keep working hard.”
That table tennis is fast growing in India is evidenced by the historic medals at Asian Games and a televised league, to go with Olympic qualification ahead of Tokyo. In mixed doubles, it won’t be an exaggeration to say there’s a shot at a medal, should Sharath Kamal and Batra find their zone and get a decent draw.
But the more promising storyline is also the rise of youngsters who are rubbing shoulders with veterans. Longevity of a legend like Sharath, consistency of the current lot like Batra and Sathiyan mixed with the confidence of youth is a heady combination for the future of table tennis in India.