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How India's table tennis stars are charting a course to the Paris Olympics

India's table tennis teams are aiming to reach the Olympics by reaching the quarterfinals of the upcoming World Team Table Tennis Championships in South Korea

Indian paddler Manika Batra in action during the World Table Tennis (WTT) Star Contender Goa 2024.
Indian paddler Manika Batra in action during the World Table Tennis (WTT) Star Contender Goa 2024. (PTI)

The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) World Team Table Tennis Championships that begins in Busan, South Korea, on 16 February will mark India’s first chance of qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympics this summer. With athletes from China continuing to dominate the sport—including the world’s top five male and top four female players—India’s best chance of success in TT in Paris will come from the team event and mixed doubles.

Currently ranked No. 15 and 17 in the world respectively, the Indian men’s and women’s teams will have to make it to the quarterfinals in Busan to qualify for Paris, failing which they would have to rely on the world rankings (as of March 2024) to sneak in. 

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The latter is more challenging, given that team rankings are based on individual player rankings. India’s highest ranked male player, Harmeet Desai, is No. 68, followed by Manav Thakkar at 87, while among the women, Manika Batra is at No. 37 and Sreeja Akula is 49. But if an Indian team qualifies, through Busan, India will also automatically get two singles spots for Paris.

“The team is, let’s say, my baby. I want to get these guys there,” says A. Sharath Kamal, the 41-year-old senior pro whose ranking has dropped to 97, while referring to the other top players. “I’ll get myself along with these guys too. Hopefully, you can have a decent draw (in Paris) and you have a very good day... So even if you win the first round, you enter the quarter-finals of the Games. That’s a big step for us.”

“For individual places,” Sharath adds, “there’ll be one spot within all of us because we have to play South Asia region, and in that region, India is by far the best. One of us will go. I’m not looking (out) for me. My primary target is the team, we need to get there as a team, then we can choose two players who will represent us.”

If the (men’s or women’s) teams do not qualify through Busan, singles players will have to find their way to Paris through continental qualification events or singles rankings, which have limited quotas. That would require the players to compete in more events, for more ranking points.

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“If we qualify as a team, then it wouldn’t matter much to play a lot of tournaments,” says Desai. “We would plan in a way that we don’t focus a lot on the ranking, but to get match practice. But if we don’t qualify as a team, then everybody would run after points. We will be competitors amongst each other. It will be a totally different scenario and then we have to plan accordingly.”

G. Sathiyan, a medal winner in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, adds that merely reaching the quarters in Busan does not complete the picture. “It’s a matter of small margins,” he says. “We have to get our best out there, we have to play as a team. Harmeet is playing really well—he has hit his best form and I hope he continues that for a couple of more months. As a team, we are backing each other up.”

Table tennis at the Olympic Games, from 27 July-10 August, will have five events—men’s, women’s singles, men’s, women’s teams and mixed doubles. The teams’ event will have a draw of 16, with one team of three athletes per country. The mixed doubles event will also consist of a draw of 16, which shortens the pathway for competitors to the medal rounds. 

“Probably the biggest chance of an achievement is here, on the team,” says Sharath, who also chairs the ITTF athletes’ commission. “So for me, that is the be-all and end-all of the Olympic Games at Paris. I’m really not even thinking about singles. I just want to put all my energy focus into the team at this moment.”

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India’s best chance of getting into the medal round would be in the mixed doubles, in which Batra and Sathiyan are currently ranked 11th in the world. Batra-Sathiyan can get to Paris on the back of qualification events or through rankings, which would be decided by March-April. 

“Frankly, it is difficult to win a medal in singles; you’re not up to that level. You have to get better,” said Sathiyan at the WTT (World Table Tennis) Star Contender in Goa last month, where he failed to qualify for the main draw in singles. “So yes, I started to focus more on the mixed doubles, and also the team. In team, as there are only 16 entries, we have a better chance to win a medal.”

Sathiyan, who has not been completely fit in recent times due to a knee injury followed by a lower back strain, admitted to focussing on mixed doubles at the cost of his results in individual events. His singles world ranking, which hovered around the 30s mark for a few years, has slipped to 91 now. “I felt that in mixed doubles, getting into the top 16, you are two rounds away from a semi-final,” the 31-year-old said. “Then anything can happen. Now I feel the Indian team is doing much better in women’s doubles, men’s doubles, so we have a fair chance. So mixed doubles for me is the real focus, at least for the next few months till the 30 April deadline.”

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Mixed doubles, as a category, is being introduced as a medal event in the Olympics for the first time in Paris, making it an area of focus for players from other countries as well. Playing doubles or mixed doubles in table tennis has an added dimension of complexity, compared to tennis or badminton, in that the players alternate strokes with their partners. The partners need to be in sync, which requires greater amount of practice together and increases players’ workload—if they also play in singles. Batra and Sathiyan, for instance, are based in different cities, so get to practice together only for short periods of time.

The Goa tournament, the only major table tennis event in India, is touted as an ideal platform for Indians to shine under familiar home conditions. But the results this January failed to flatter. Batra and Sathiyan lost in the round of 16, Thakkar-Archana Kamath in the quarter-finals of the mixed doubles. Snehit Suravajjula, ranked No. 156, went the farthest among men in singles, to the round of 32, while Sreeja reached the women’s singles quarters.

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While there has been a smattering of medals at the Commonwealth Games and Asian events—Ayhika and Sutirtha Mukherjee won a bronze medal in women’s doubles at the Asian Games last year—Indian players have not broken any major barriers yet at the world stage. But with an increasing number of tournaments, changes in format of international competitions, wider talent pool and resources, there are greater expectations. In an Olympic year, the quadrennial event tends to garner all the attention.

“There will, of course, be expectations,” says Batra. “Sometimes we just think that because of these expectations, we have to win every match. But the focus needs to be on every match, doubles, mixed doubles and singles. When I am on the table, nothing else is in my mind—there is me and the opponent.” 

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle. He posts @iArunJ.

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