Sharath Kamal, G Sathiyan interview: Paddlers credit UTT, TTFI for rise of table tennis in India; target Olympics glory in Tokyo

Table tennis in India for long played the second fiddle role to other racquet sports like tennis and badminton only to suddenly become a talk of the town in 2018 when the Indian team racked up an unprecedented amount of medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

After winning a record eight medals in Gold Coast, India also accounted for their first Asian Games medal later that year, finishing with two bronze medals. In a sport that is dominated by Asian giants like China and South Korea, India finally managed to make the right noises. The rise of Indian table tennis has also being reflected in the players' ranking. G Sathiyan recently became the first Indian to break into top-25 as he grabbed the 24th spot in the rankings after his Asia Cup and World Championships heroics. Veteran Sharath Kamal, in late 2018, broke into the top-30 of the ITTF rankings for the first time while Manika Batra continues to lead India's charge in women's rankings by being the sole Indian in the top-100.

 Sharath Kamal, G Sathiyan interview: Paddlers credit UTT, TTFI for rise of table tennis in India; target Olympics glory in Tokyo

File image of Sharath Kamal (L) and G Sathiyan. Reuters

There's no doubt that better days are ahead for the sport in India with the talented crop of Manav Thakkar, Archana Kamath and others waiting in the ranks to take the sport by storm. What has coincided with the rise of the sport in India and its popularity is the advent of Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT), a franchise-based league that began in 2017. Apart from bringing eyeballs and glamour to the sport, UTT also brought top players to the Indian shores providing local players with the opportunity to rub shoulders with the best. What followed was not just rub off the green but a rapid rise in quality of Indian paddlers' game.

Firstpost caught with top table tennis players Sharath Kamal and G Sathiyan to discuss the story of India's rise, the upcoming season of UTT, behind the scenes preparations of top athletes, personal goals and more.

And it was not a surprise that both the stars concurred that UTT has helped the players to take their game to the next level.

Sharath, who waged a lone battle to keep table tennis' flag flying high in India before Sathiyan and Manika emerged on the scene, said the combined effort of Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) and UTT has now started to bear fruit.

"Since the 2016 Olympics, there have been a few changes which have been instrumental in India's growth in table tennis," Sharath pointed out. "One factor is UTT and the other TTFI, because they got foreign coaches, funding. There was better planning and arrangements.

"With UTT, what we had was foreign stars coming to India to compete. Indians defeated a few of the foreign players and that gave us a lot of confidence. We carried that confidence to international tournaments resulting in good results. The league has provided the right kind of exposure to the younger players," said Sharath in a telephonic conversation.

Sathiyan, who is currently competing in Japan, elaborated on what kind of learning experience UTT has been apart from providing the opportunity of competing with the best.

"The league has made a huge impact on the sport. It's the first time foreign players are now coming down to India," said Sathiyan. "To get to stay with them, travel with them and to compete, there's a lot of learning in it that no amount of money can buy. I learnt a lot from the first edition about how top players prepare for a match, how they approach the competition.

"When I started beating top players in UTT, it gave me a huge amount of confidence as to if I can beat these guys in UTT then why can't I beat them internationally. I beat World No 8 Wong Chun Ting in 2017 and then I beat him again in 2019 after a gap of two players. The league gave us a lot of confidence."

Despite two successful years, the organisers of UTT have brought a host of changes to the league in order to sustain the cut-throat competition from other sports.

Each team will now only have six players instead of eight while a tie will only have five matches in place of seven. Also, a singles player can be pitted against another player regardless of nationality. The idea behind the changes is to make the league short, entertaining and more competitive.

Both Sharath and Sathiyan are excited about the changes and expect the league to become more engaging for fans with the new edition.

"The first season had nine matches but that's a bit boring to watch. It was brought down to seven and now to five. The current format is quite crisp and will keep the TV and online audience engaged. The decision to allow a player to compete against any player of the other team will also make the league more interesting for players. We will need to second guess teams' strategies," said Sharath, who will be playing for Chennai Lions in the upcoming season.

Table tennis doesn't come across as a highly physical sport but it has its own demands; mainly speed and agility. The physical training for TT is obviously different from other sport. The focus is less on endurance and more on the agility and reflexes. While Sharath pointed out that paddlers work regularly on the footwork and reflexes, Sathiyan provided a detailed peek into his training methods.

"Table tennis players take a lot of time to learn the basics because it's a very skilful sport but to play at the highest level you need skills along with good fitness. You don't need huge muscles but you need speed and agility. It's a very dynamic sport and involves a lot of subtle movements," said Sathiyan.

"We train accordingly to improve our reflexes and agility. I have worked very hard on speed to get better at it and that has made me one of the fastest players. I train by running with reactions with my fitness coach Ramji Srinivasan. I am required to run with resistance and touch lights which illuminate. This helps in improving agility, decision making. We also use equipment like Dynavision where you are required to make quick, right decisions to press the light on a board that illuminates. You also need some power and I am working on that because I really need to get some power into my game."

Training and fitness is one aspect but one of the most important factors that separate an elite athlete from the rest of the crowd is the ability of the individual to handle the pressure and detach himself or herself from the results. The rise in popularity also brings along with it added pressure. There are more expectations. Sharath, who has been competing at the highest level, feels while one cannot escape pressure, experience helps an athlete to be ready for stressful situations.

"There's nobody who doesn't get stressed, even Captain Cool (MS Dhoni) gets stressed but it's about how you handle the pressure. With age and experience, you get better at handling the pressure. And that's the difference between the best and good players. Despite all the pressure, it is always important to keep calm and concentrate on the job at hand. You need to get the best out of yourself and help the team to win."

Sathiyan indulged in how staying mentally sharp is a part of a process for him and how he works on small "process goals" to improve his game. He credited his rise in table tennis to working through the process instead of fretting about the results.

"I work with a mental conditioning coach because the mental part plays a big role in our sport. You have very less time to make decisions and you need to very sharp. Focus is required and even a bit of distraction can hamper your game. We have to detach ourselves from the result and the point system. It's easier said than done but we work on it," said the World No 24, who will be playing for Dabang Delhi in the upcoming season of UTT.

"We work on process goals. We plan it and try to do some in a single game to see how it impacts me. Fretting about results won't take you anywhere but what's important is to work on the process. To keep working on it, making new goals once to achieve a set goal. That's how I have been working like over the past few years and the ranking is a result of that process."

One would hope India's current rise in the sport is just the dawn and better things lie ahead. The top athletes are obviously gung-ho about it and are aiming for bigger things. For Sharath, who has been the torchbearer for the sport in India for more than a decade, knows exactly what could now be the "icing on the cake" for his career.

"The most important goal in my mind right now is the upcoming Olympics. We got a medal at Asian Games if we can get another medal at the Olympics it will be the icing on the cake for my career. Apart from that, I haven't won UTT, so I would like to do that," said the 36-year-old veteran.

Sathiyan has shown in the past year that he's got what it takes to compete with the best in the world and naturally the target is to break into the top-10 in the world.

"With the way I am playing. I have already started beating top players, have started rubbing shoulders with the top-10 players so my short term goal is to reach to top-15 in this season and then reach top-10 and an Olympic medal is what we are looking at as the long term goal," said Sathiyan.

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Updated Date: Jun 19, 2019 15:40:27 IST