Asian Games 2018: From CWG favourites to continental underdogs, Indian paddlers need teamwork, luck for medal

"The only goal is to get a medal. Just one medal will change the whole thing because we have never won a medal there. It doesn't matter what if its singles, doubles, mixed doubles or teams."

A sense of deep craving and confidence is palpable in Sharath Kamal's voice as he talks about India's goals at the Asian Games. After a historic Commonwealth Games, where India bagged a record eight medals, next target is to bring home an Asiad medal.

The eleven days at the Gold Coast were madness. India just went with the flow and won medals in every event. The expectations have risen post the CWG heroics but the Asian Games are a different ballgame. So let's just not get too far ahead. Let's just keep expectations real. There won't be a medal rush like the CWG because India will be up against Asian powerhouses like China, Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong.

 Asian Games 2018: From CWG favourites to continental underdogs, Indian paddlers need teamwork, luck for medal

Sharath Kamal. Image courtesy: Twitter @ittfworld

In the 60 years since table tennis' inception at the Asian Games, India haven't won a medal. But with Kamal in red-hot form, a vibrant team and the women paddlers riding high on confidence after the CWG success, this is their best chance to break that medal duck.

"We've never been at that level to win a medal. We've always ranked 25-26 in the world or even below that, probably close to 30," Kamal tells Firstpost. "And the competition in Asia is very high so we have never raised onto that level of competition.

"This Asian Games will be my fourth and probably the biggest chance I have ever had (of winning a medal) compared to the last three. It's also because I personally have been doing very well for the last two-three years and along with me the team has been doing fantastic. This is the best team we ever had."

Out of the five events (men's team, women's team, men's singles, women's singles and mixed doubles), India's best chance of winning a medal stands in the team events. In the singles, the top three players — Kamal, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Manika Batra — will be seeded 10, 11 and 15 respectively. Beating the top 8 will be an uphill task and it will all be about consistency and upsets to reach even the quarters or the semis. The mixed doubles event is unpredictable. India might field the Kamal-Batra and Anthony Amalraj-Madhurika Patkar pairs and they can spring some surprises.

In the team event, progressing from group stage to quarter-final will be the first goal. And from then on it's just the case of one match to get home that medal and that will be the most difficult part. Unlike the CWG, there is no bronze medal match at the Asiad and both winning and losing semi-finalists get a medal. That quarter-final match will be very crucial. The men's team have failed to achieve that final push the last two times. The women's team too lost in the quarter-final last time.

The men's team ran into China both times, while the women lost to Singapore in last-eight stage of the 2014 edition of the Asian Games. No country in the world has found an answer to Chinese domination in table tennis whether the World No 1 send their 'B', 'C' or 'D' teams. This is where the draw will be the key for India. If they don't meet China in the quarter-final, they stand a chance. So there is a bit of luck involved. The Indian men's team will be seeded sixth while the women's team will be seeded eighth. With Japan not fielding their top players, India would prefer Japan, Chinese Taipei or Hong Kong. Korea will still be very difficult.

"I think the draw will be a key factor, says Kamal. The last two times we've had China in the quarter-finals and that makes is very difficult for us because their top 3 players are one of the best in the world and beating them as a team is really, really hard. Prior to that, in my first Asian Games, we played against Japan. I could win a match and the others were a bit close. So against the other teams, we still do have a chance. But then against China it makes it very difficult. I don't say that we don't have a chance because in sport you can never say we don't have any chance or we will surely win. There is no guarantee that way. But then the draw will be very important," Kamal adds.

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran (L) and manika Batra (R). Reuters

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran (L) and Manika Batra. Reuters

The team event will have five singles rubbers with two players allowed to play a maximum of two matches and the third player one. The team strategy will depend on the opponents but the three players who would make the core in the men's team would be Kamal, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Harmeet Desai. Highly rated 18-year-old Manav Thakkar has been the only change in the squad from the Commonwealth Games, replacing Sanil Shetty and he might get a look-in too. While in the women's team, Manika Batra, Mouma Das and Madhurika Patkar form the spine. Their experience, coupled with young legs of Ayhika Mukherjee (only change in women's squad replacing Pooja Sahasrabuddhe) and Suthirta Mukherjee give team the right balance.

Unlike the Gold Coast, the Indian paddlers won't get time to get into the groove in Jakarta. They will have to fire right from the word go and that too in unison.

"We will have to have all three players playing at their best on that particular day. That only will ensure a medal coming through. Even if one is not able to deliver, it's very very difficult to win against these big giants," Kamal asserts.

The preparations started two years ago, both for the CWG and the Asian Games and the last leg — the training camp in China — has been crucial.

"Having a camp in China means to get two different opportunities: playing with various sparring partners with various abilities and train with a high quality of rhythm and speed of balls," India coach Massimo Costantini explains.

The Asians possess a very fast game and to counter that the Indian team has practiced with prototype local Chinese players. They even trained with the Chinese national team for a day and played friendly matches at the high-profile Sichuan Sports Technic in Chengdu. Amidst the long training sessions in morning and afternoon, the focus was also to create match-like situations.

There is no shortage of motivating factors heading into the Asian Games. The confidence gained from the CWG success and the performance at the World Team Championships, where the Indian men’s team finished 13th — their best since 1987 — and the women 17th (a crucial learning curve), has been invaluable.

"After the CWG, there has been a lot of improvement in our gameplay. And the confidence has increased a lot," says Batra.

India's women's team celebrate along with coach Massimo Costantini (L), after winning gold at the CWG. Reuters

India's women's team celebrate along with coach Massimo Costantini (L), after winning gold at the CWG. Reuters

From favourites in Gold Coast to underdogs in Jakarta, it releases the pressure valve too.

"The kind of pressure that we have won't be so high when the other teams are more favourites. We are underdogs but within our minds, we don't think of ourselves as underdogs because we are beating those players in the Pro Tours and other international tournaments," says Kamal. "It's just that we need to beat them collectively in a team match or consistently in a single tournament in three-four rounds. So there, we don't think of ourselves as underdogs but then all the others are thinking, 'Okay, India is coming from behind and we are pretty strong than them so we need to beat them'. So I think that pressure on them will be negative and the pressure on us will be positive."

Add to that the Asian powerhouses have started taking notice of India's rise.

"In the World Championships they (China) were scared, we had a match against them and they were building an entire strategy of how to play against us. So it felt good," Batra recalls.

The Indian players have had some success against the Asian players of late. Kamal beat then World No 7 Japanese Koki Niwa earlier this year at the Qatar Open, his first top-10 win. Sathiyan beat Japan's Yoshida Masaki (Now World No 57) at the Australian Open, Kim Donghyun (World No 66) of Korea at the Qatar Open. Coach Costantini has played a key role in instilling the belief that the Asians are not unbeatable.

"He has given a lot of inputs and now you can see that the Indian players are able to beat the Asian top-ranked players," says Harmeet Desai, member of the Indian TT squad.

"It is just because of his belief in the players and the players also have started to believe that we can really beat these guys. Also, him being on the sidelines and there for us all the time has really helped us. His presence will be a morale booster."

There is real sense of anticipation. The mood is upbeat. Yes, it's going to be an uphill task and it will require a major combo of will, luck, 'A' game and collective effort to click all at once, but there is positivity in the air.

"I feel the same spirit we had before the CWG. And one thing I am sure of is, Indian players are ready to give their best to make a dream come true," Costantini signs off.

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Updated Date: Aug 20, 2018 13:54:23 IST