Ultimate Table Tennis: How a one-of-a-kind tournament rekindled my love for the sport
When the Ultimate Table Tennis League was announced, it naturally got me excited. Until now, I had played and watched the sport but not covered it which I always wanted to.
I fell in love with most of the sports I ardently follow by watching them on television. But table tennis was different. I had never watched the game on TV while growing up; television coverage was rather scant in India. With a lack of requisite infrastructure, I began playing the sport — thanks to my friends — on the water tank of my society after installing a long thin stick as a makeshift net. It wasn't the best of setups, but we still enjoyed it. Right from the start, I was always serious about the game. Yes, it was fun but I never liked losing. My love for the sport grew over the years.
I was always excited at the prospect of playing the game rather than watching it. And it wasn't until a few years ago that I started following it online on the ITTF website.
In my early years, just like Sharath Kamal, I had only heard of world no. 1 Ma Long's heroics. However, it wasn't until the 2016 Rio Olympics that I finally watched him play live on television. I was mesmerised by his game. Soon, I began following the Pro Tours and top-ranked players along with the Indian paddlers regularly and the connect grew further.
So, when the Ultimate Table Tennis League was announced, it naturally got me excited. Until now, I had played and watched the sport but not covered it — something I always wanted to, as a sports journalist.
While I was disappointed that Ma Long or world no. 2 Fan Zhendong wouldn't be visiting Indian shores, I started researching the rest of the foreign players. I already had prior knowledge about the Indians.
However, I was astounded to find that there wasn't exhaustive information available about the sport, its technicalities and the players on the internet. I somehow managed to accumulate bits and pieces before the start of the tournament and educated myself decently.
The draft didn't strike a chord as I would have liked but when the tournament started, the first thing that struck me was the level of commentary. In such a fast sport, the commentator was belting out intricate technicalities and interesting stories fluently amidst the insane pace of the game.
It interested me more because I was getting in-depth information which I wouldn't have gathered on the internet. UTT was faster than the international games with just a 10-second gap between points. Running a live blog on matches really tested my typing speed and hand-eye coordination, despite having done ball-by-ball commentary over the past seven years. Having played the game, I was aware of the mechanics. But with table tennis, the technicalities are endless. What got me hooked was the information that I was able to absorb by watching the world class players... and from listening to the commentators.
There was a good mix in the commentary box with Adam Bobrow, former India paddler Neha Aggarwal and veteran commentator Colin Turner bringing forward different interesting aspects of the game, right from the strategies to the equipment that a particular player was using. They have watched the players all round the world from close quarters and there was a good mix of technicalities along with story telling.
I had heard about the response India's ace paddler Kamal receiving at his home leg in Chennai. However, covering the sport from the venue was a totally different experience as compared to TV. As I strolled down the backstage area of the NSCI stadium in Worli, in search of the PR guy, I came across a tall, lanky man clad in a Captain America t-shirt and matching shorts playing table tennis on the practise tables while sweating profusely. He seemed to be a known figure. It soon dawned on me that he was none other than Bobrow.
I was impressed by the intensity with which he was playing even a practise game. I asked him for permission to click his pictures, he gave me a thumbs up. Soon I got to know that the player interviews I had set up were cancelled because their flights were delayed.
Then, there was Adam to the rescue. I asked him if I could try my hand at a game against him. He readily handed over a spare racket and asked in a serious tone, "It's 11-0 me or 11-0 you, is that fine?" (Well, he basically asked whether he should play a serious game considering that I am an amateur.)
I asked him to go ahead. I won't reveal the scoreline of the next two matches, but that set the tone for what followed — an hour-long conversation. Bobrow seemed to be a very interesting personality, just as I had imagined.
Throughout the chat he came across as a very friendly guy who had immense talent: He was an actor, artist, voiceover artist, a semi-pro paddler and a table tennis commentator.
That chat also set the tone for my coverage of the Mumbai leg, as — just like the top foreign players — I too was impressed with the Indian men's performance in the league.
Watching from close quarters and interacting with different players and coaches gave me a broader view of the game. I could dig into the technicalities of the sport even deeper. Understanding different kinds of spins and tactics the players use along with getting educated about the foreigners as well.
It was exhilarating to watch high-quality table tennis from the press box. The fans had, over the period of five days, developed a connect with the Indian players. They were chanting for home boy Sanil Shetty (who was an unknown name a few days ago), requesting autographs and selfies. Sanil's aggression and murderous forehand earned him the moniker of forehand-slayer. There were breathtaking rallies which thrilled the fans, especially the kids. It was fast and it was tiring running the live blog but I was enjoying it too because of the atmosphere, Indian players' performance and the overall quality of the games. Yes, it wasn't jam packed or extremely vociferous, but the fans created a good atmosphere, especially in the semis and final.
The best thing about covering the league was the easy access to the players amidst a handful of journalists. The PR guys and franchises were extremely helpful. Unlike cricket or other popular sports in India, we were easily able to interact with the players, know how they train, what's going through their minds. There was even a translator for the foreign players who didn't speak English. There were player interactions in between matches as well.
At the end of five days, I was totally drained. But it was a really good learning experience. Table Tennis is not just a leisure sport, there is plenty more to it — it's complicated, but fun to decipher as well.
UTT left Indian players excited, the foreign players impressed and amidst all this, the cherry on the cake was I got Bobrow to show off one of his outstanding skills — trick shots.
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