Cristiano Ronaldo can run. He can dribble past befuddled defenders and make them look like statues. He can climb higher than NBA players to bury in a header. He can curl in 40-yard free-kicks. He can shoot. He can cross and he can score goals for fun.
However, if you thought his talent was limited to football, you are mistaken. He can spin it on a table-tennis table too. Ask Joao Monteiro, the veteran Portuguese paddler, who played table tennis with Ronaldo in his early days and he will give you a bird's eye view of his multiple talents.
"He (Ronaldo) had already started to hit top-spin. He had quite a lot of talent in table tennis too,” Montiero tells Firstpost.
The Portuguese paddler crossed paths with Ronaldo at Sporting Club de Portugal — a conveyor belt of world-class football talent. He played table tennis in the club till he was 20 and it was 15 years ago that he saw glimpses of Ronaldo's talents and his love for a sport other than football.
"He liked table tennis very much," Monteiro says. "Before his practice he used to visit the TT club many times with different friends and used to ask for racquets and ball. He started to play a little bit and enjoyed himself."
While they played against each other for fun, Monteiro gives a sneak-peak into Ronaldo's mindset that sets him apart.
"We played a few times and he enjoyed very much. I tried to explain him the movements, he was very intelligent and he assimilated things very fast. And as I said, he was even already playing the top spin and understood the way of playing the game.
"He is very competitive and always tries to be the best. There, even if it (table tennis) was a hobby, he always tried to win against his friends. He is a very competitive guy and that's why he is also successful in football."
A confirmation of Ronaldo's insatiable hunger to succeed was recently provided by his former Manchester United teammate Patrice Evra as he recalled an interesting tale involving Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand.
"He was playing table-tennis with Rio Ferdinand and Rio beat him and we were all screaming," Evra told ITV Sport's World Cup podcast.
"Ronaldo was so upset. So he sent his cousin to be a table tennis table and was training for two weeks at home, and he came back and beat Rio in front of everyone. That's Cristiano Ronaldo, and that's why I am not surprised that he wants to win another Ballon D'Or, win the World Cup. Because he is an angry man."
So, one day Monterio decided to play football with Ronaldo. The the experience left an everlasting impression on him.
"One time we played futsal with him. He came so many times to play TT so we said, 'Let's play a little bit of football with you and see.' There was a futsal field close to where we played TT and he played with us for 20 minutes. he was in his jeans and a T-shirt and not with sports shoes as well but still he was amazing when he had the ball and the things he was doing. Back then, it was already unbelievable, the way he was playing even if it was for fun."
Monteiro lost contact with Ronaldo after the latter moved to Real Madrid and changed his contact number. The last time the paddler met him was when he was in Manchester United. The chat revolved around Ronaldo's progress at the club, and how he adapted to the English life.
Ronaldo also told Monteiro that he was enjoying his stint under Sir Alex Ferguson, and that he was treated well by everyone at the club. Ronaldo also travelled to watch some table tennis matches that Monteiro and the Portugal team played. Even when we they were playing away, Ronaldo would visit to see some matches.
Apart from his sporting talents, what struck Monteiro was Ronaldo's humility. Having spent some time with him in the early days, Monteiro gives a first-hand account of Ronaldo, the person.
"He is a very simple and nice guy. You can still see now, even though he is such a big personality with so much popularity, he still has his entourage from 15 years back. He never forgot and left his old friends. You can see many times on his Instagram, he posts photos with his old friends. Some of them I also knew. He is the same guy, doesn't matter if now his bank account has so many millions. He is a normal person. He is natural and not a fake guy which is also a thing I admire about him the most. I am sure if I see him now, he will still recognise me and talk.”
Monteiro feels that Ronaldo's move to Manchester United was a game changer where Sir Alex Ferguson helped him become strong, focussed and a more competitive player. But a crucial component to his success has been his hardwork, dedication and work ethic. Having known, watched and played with him, Monteiro is not surprised that Ronaldo's career has skyrocketed.
"Everybody could see already when he was playing in Portugal that he was a very talented player. In his pursuit to be the best, Ronaldo worked on his body, and did extra things after the practice which make him what he is now. You can say whatever you want, arrogant and all but in the sport, he is an example for everybody because he works more than the others, he always tries to be the best. He is 100 percent competitive. Every sportsman’s goal should be to be like him."
Ronaldo steps up and takes his quintessential stance to take the free kick in the 87th minute. Portugal are trailing 2-3 against Spain in their opening match of the FIFA World Cup 2018. He takes a deep breath with his eyes firmly fixed on the target. He stops a back-peddling referee bumping into him to veer his path. And then charges to land a sumptuous free-kick into the net. The stands erupt and about 4000 km away from Sochi, in Pune, Monteiro too sets off in wild celebration watching Ronaldo's masterclass along with fellow Ultimate Table Tennis players. For him, a draw was a good result for Portugal.
"Facing the best player in the world is not easy," he cheekily informs his Spanish counterpart Alvaro Robles.
The Spain vs Portugal battle at the UTT
It's well past midnight in India. Monteiro is not used to staying up so late. But he doesn't have a match next day and the practice session is late so there is no way he is going to miss the big match.
His love for football means he is juggling between playing UTT, leading the Maharashtra United side and catching up with the World Cup. He does follow other matches apart from Portugal's but being a professional, his priorities are well set.
"The time of the matches here are very late here and I have to rest so I cannot see all the matches but the next day I always go to see the highlights from each match. This is the way I follow.
"My job here is to play and perform in UTT. I will never change the schedule of my practice to see one match that is at 1 in the morning. I am professional and this is my sport and job. So I try to follow as much as possible, but if it’s too late or not good for my schedule, of course table tennis is always in front."
Throughout our chat, Monteiro is intense — just like on the court — but there are intermittent smiles as he reminisces the past. There is an emotional touch in his voice. And why not? Apart from table tennis, football has been an integral part of his life. His first love was the Beautiful Game. He took up football, but soon developed liver problems. He had to discontinue playing the sport as too much physical contact was not advisable. And then, by accident, table tennis happened.
"Nobody in my family was related with TT. My first coach at that time came to my primary school and conducted physical tests on 100-odd kids, and when the results came out, I was among the best 20. One day he called us to the local club and introduced us to table tennis. Some liked, some didn't. I stayed for one year and started to know the basic movements of TT, and practice. After one year, I started with the competitions, I was lucky to win the U-13 Portuguese Championships and from there on, my passion for the game increased because I started to win very early."
Monteiro rose steadily through the ranks but had to traverse a bumpy ride. He took up the game when there was no table tennis culture in Portugal, and along with the likes of Tiago Apolonia, Marcos Freitas, brought about a revolution in the sport in the country. He left Portugal for Europe at 22 in search of better sparring partners and competition.
The move worked and he became the first Portuguese to qualify for Olympic Games, in 2008. European success followed as he was an integral part of the Portugal team that won its first ever gold in European Championships in 2014. A year later, he won the European doubles gold, partnering with Stefan Fegeral of Austria for the first time and then came the special moment in his life when he won the European mixed doubles title in 2016 with his wife Daniela Monteiro-Dodean. The duo became the first ever husband-wife pair to win a European title. Monteiro becomes a bit emotional recalling the moment.
"It was of course very special to win a European title with your soulmate. It was a very big moment with a daughter at home. I believe in future when she sees those memories on the internet and the videos, she will be very proud of her parents. And in some way, will forgive us for being away from home so many times. But everything we do is for her and to give her a good life."
Monteiro was also one-time Europe Cup runners-up. Two-time quarter-finalist with Portugal in World Cups (2014, 2016), one-time quarter-finalist in Olympic Games (2012) with the team and six-time Portuguese champion.
The 34-year old from Lisbon has been one of the key figures behind Portugal's rise in table tennis and he along with Apolonia and Freitas have constructed a pathway for the youngsters to follow. Portugal needed to start somewhere and that hardwork was done by the trio. It's now up to the youngsters to take the legacy forward.
Constant challenges and struggles have made Monteiro tougher. He is an intense and emotional character on court, but off it he's totally different.
"I am a normal person; I like to be with my family and friends. I like to make jokes, try to make a good environment in the team and between the people I am in. I am a normal and relaxed guy."
At 34, he is still going strong. And it is his never-say-die attitude that has been a catalyst for his success over the years.
"I fight every match independent of which opponent I play. It doesn't matter if he is better or worse than me, I always respect every player. Because this is the only way you will succeed in sport.
"(Also) As long as you go to the practice, you must always try your best to improve because the sport is always improving itself. My goal is always to try to be a better player every day, stay hungry, give my 100 percent."
Just like, in whatever he does, he is never playing just for fun, like old friend Ronaldo.
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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 12:30:04 IST