Achanta Sharath Kamal jumped in delight and sprinted across the arena with hands raised as G Sathiyan’s return sailed long, handing him a record 10th men’s singles title at the table tennis national championships in Shillong on Monday. Sharath, three months shy of 40, had every reason to celebrate like a teenager. He is still India’s best (world ranking 38)—a rung above Sathiyan. His aching, battered body has taken a toll over the years but he continues to find ways to beat younger opponents and extend his dominance.
Mouma Das, five-time national women’s champion, would have been equally elated though she didn’t win in the end. Making a comeback after three years following childbirth, the 38-year-old was a surprise finalist in the 128-player draw. She eventually lost to Akula Sreeja in the final. It hardly mattered that Mouma’s world ranking has slipped to 782 and there are 22 Indians better placed in that list. Manika Batra (world No 48), the Commonwealth Games champion who lost in the round of 16, tops that list followed by the promising Archana Kamath (92), Sutirtha Mukherjee (97)—she played at the Tokyo Olympics—Sreeja (107) and Ayhika Mukherjee (115).
While the performances of Sharath and Mouma were brilliant, it puts India’s younger lot under scrutiny, especially in the year of the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games where younger talent being selected can also gain experience for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“They are coming up but probably not at the pace and intensity we expect,” says S Raman, four-time national singles champion who is now a Dronacharya-award winning coach. “There are some young players like Manush (Shah), Manav (Thakkar), and some among women, but again they are not coming up at the same speed. Maybe they will take a little bit more time. Definitely, this is always a challenge in every sport,” he says.
Olympian Neha Aggarwal feels more disappointed with the performances of women in Shillong.
“Sharath is right there at the top. He is a class apart in terms of maintaining fitness, using his experience well and having the motivation to work hard every day. He is actively working on his fitness, and skills, some are very technical and he goes through a lot of pain to manage his body.
“I was a bit disappointed with the women. I felt the youngsters have all they need to surpass the veterans but they still have not been able to do so. All kudos to Mouma for her mental tenacity, but I am a bit disappointed with the juniors losing in earlier rounds.”
The stakes were high at the nationals as performances will carry weight for the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games selection.
“It is not that they do not have the skills, talent or ability. Look at Archana, Diya (Parag), Ayhika, they have done so well in fitness. But it is also about being smart and mature. They need to play more matches, high-pressure matches. Mouma has so much experience, she put all that to use. Table tennis is very physical but at the same time it is very, very tactical.”
Since the Indian teams produced breakthrough results at CWG and Asian Games in 2018 under Massimo Constantini before the Italian quit, there has been no foreign coach. Neither has there been a proper national coaching set up or regular camps in the last two years.
“It’s been almost four years—we don’t have a foreign coach or a good Indian coach. Most players are finding their own way, managing their training, coaching. Top players like Sharath, Sathiyan and Manika can manage, but the younger lot would have definitely suffered,” says Raman.
To add to the players’ woes, the Table Tennis Federation of India stands suspended and is run by a Delhi high court-appointed Committee of Administrators.
“These are challenges in the system for both men and women. There is no particular centre where these guys can go and train. All this has slowed down the process. The way we were preparing for 2010, 2014 and 2018 CWG and Asian, that has not happened. Covid also impacted training and competition, but that’s not an excuse. As an athlete all must find the right solution and work towards it,” adds Aggarwal.