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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

Archana Kamath brings offence to the table

In 2015, Archana became the first Indian girl to enter the quarter-finals of the ITTF World Junior Circuit Finals.

other-sports Updated: Aug 09, 2019 23:38 IST
Abhishek Paul
Abhishek Paul
Hindustan Times, Delhi
Archana Kamath in action during a match in the 21st Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship in Cuttack.
Archana Kamath in action during a match in the 21st Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship in Cuttack.(PTI)
         

Archana Kamath is a fist-pumping, hard hitting, aggressive table tennis player. Yet she prefers the gliding grace of Roger Federer over the explosive Rafael Nadal when it comes to picking her favorite athlete. She wants to get back to her favourite pastime of reading courtroom thrillers, especially John Grisham’s novels, but learning to appreciate the taste of chicken, so she can begin to get more protein in her otherwise vegetarian diet seems a more important proposition. She liked school, and scored heavily in her class 12 exams, but has mostly been absent from college for the past one year.

Ah to be 19, and live this deliciously tospy-turvy life.

For Kamath though, there is one clear exception, one thing that follows a strictly linear progression—her exploits in table tennis. In 2015, Archana became the first Indian girl to enter the quarter-finals of the ITTF World Junior Circuit Finals. In 2018, she was the first Indian to reach the semi-finals at the Youth Olympics. In January this year, she emerged as the youngest in 30 years to win the senior nationals.

Success has come steadily for Kamath since she took up the game when she was 9 years old.

Now, she needs to pick up the pace.

“I do want to enter the top-100, then the top-80 as soon as possible,” Kamath says, on the sidelines of the Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) tournament in New Delhi, a franchise based competition in its third season.

“Once that goal is achieved, may be top-50. This is a pre-Olympic year. There are lots of qualification tournament coming up, so there is a lot of work to be done.” Kamath is currently ranked 139th in the world.

While she is currently ranked fourth in the country behind Manika Batra (world No 76), Ayhika Mukherjee (No 122) and Madhurika Patkar (No. 132), Kamath is also acquiring the reputation of a giant killer.

She has already beaten Batra—the first Indian woman TT player to break into the top-50 — twice in the recent past; once on her way to the national title and again at the UTT.

Kamath is almost embarassed: “One or two victories do not change anything. Manika didi is a legend. I look up to her,” she says.

For Kamath, the real test only begins now, as she begins to make her transition to senior level internationally.

Coach Massimo Constantini, under whom India won its maiden Asian Games table tennis medal in Jakarta last year, too feels that, “winning a senior national title at such a young age is good for confidence. But it cannot guarantee you success at the international level. At the top, everyone is giving their best. It’s essential to always vie for more.”

It is possible that this hunger will come easily for Kamath, on the back of the intensity and aggression she brings to her game.

“In my sport, there can be quite a few setbacks,” she says. “But I’m an aggressive player. It’s the way I attack a point, go for the top-spin and try to take an early lead. I am more aggressive now in terms of putting more pressure on the opponent. If I am very confident with myself I don’t mind making a couple of mistakes. It’s an ongoing process to channelise the energy.”

As Kamath wraps up a practice session with her UTT team, Goa Challengers, a team that has reached the semi-finals of the tournament, she talks of Achanta Sharath Kamal as inspiration.

“Sharath anna is my role model. He is a very aggressive player. He has reached that level where he is consistent, plays the same game and improves every day. That’s something which will take time for me,” she says.

Coach Constantini feels that while aggression is a good thing, Archana also needs to improve her game to match it. “She has to develop a better serve. Maybe, she is still not able to capitalise it fully (sic). Having said that, she is technically sound, is determined and loves the game. She has the height and the ambition. But she needs to plan her progress, needs good exposure, needs good sparring partners,” says Constantini.

The lack of consistency has been evident in her showing in the last three World Tour events so far this year, with her best results being a Round of 64 spots at the Hungarian and Hong Kong Open.

For Archana losing a match—or even a point—is a setback that weighs on her mind.

“I have realised, it’s never easy when you lose,” she says. “Never.”

Archana is trying to minimise that inconsistency as much as possible and for that she’s training almost eight hours a day.

“My daily routine involves almost three hours of table tennis practice in the morning, then another couple of hours in the gym with my strength coach and then another couple of hours of TT practice in the evening,” she says. “Strength and conditioning training is very important for the kind of game I play. For attack, I need to be really quick and move a lot. Then I have to also avoid injuries.”

In a structured bid to improve her game, Kamath works with a team of experts—she takes coaching sessions from former India coach Peter Engel in Berlin and practices under former India internationals Bona Thomas John and Aloysius Sagayraj in Bengaluru on a regular basis.

“She needs patience to improve further,” Engel says. “If you practice one shot a thousand times, maybe you’ll succeed 300 times the first time around. Then, you will be successful on 50 per cent of the occasions. That’s the way to progress. It’s about being aware; about when to take risks, when to play safe. It’s about exposure and about the competition. Everything takes time.”

Kamath’s support system includes her parents, Anubha and Girish— both ophthalmologists—who put their careers on the line to shape her future.

“My mom and dad were my earliest playing partners,” Kamath says. “They used to lose to me so that I wouldn’t cry. My mother stopped her practice just to accompany me to tournaments. She says she enjoys being with me. I would like to believe that. She has quite a few technical inputs on her mind but is scared to tell me.”

First Published: Aug 09, 2019 23:38 IST