Indian table tennis players look to shake off rust ahead of Tokyo Olympics qualifiers
- Anxious for competition amid the pandemic, stars like Achanta Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra will begin Olympics-focused build-up with the Table Tennis national championships.
India’s top table tennis players geared up for their first competition in a year as the national championships started in Panchkula with the women's event on Monday. The players though will get little time to assess their performances. Immediately after the nationals, they will leave for Doha to take part in the world qualification event for the Tokyo Olympics scheduled from March 14-17. It will be followed by the Asian Olympic qualifier, also at the Qatari capital, from March 18-20.
They will also play in two World Table Tennis (WTT) tournaments in Doha from Feb 28, which will help shake off the rust before the Tokyo qualification events.
World No. 32 Achanta Sharath Kamal, 38, explained what lay ahead.
“The next six weeks are going to be very tough for all of us. We start off with the nationals and then go to Qatar and enter a bio-bubble in which we will stay for a month and play the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers,” he said.
Sharath, who has featured in three Olympics, hasn’t played for almost a year and the challenge would be to quickly get into the groove. Post lockdown, the top players were in a 42-day national camp from October, but that can hardly make up for a lack of competition. Sharath’s last international competition was Oman Open in March last year where he won the singles title.
“Even injury hasn’t stopped me from not playing for so long. I don’t know in what shape I am in. Don’t know what exactly I can expect from the nationals. I will just go, I prefer to take it one match at a time.
“Fitness is not a worry because all of us have worked very hard. We never had so much time to work on fitness. But the basic thing is how sharp we are,” said the multiple times Commonwealth Games medallist.
The winner of a record nine national singles titles in not sure this time.
“The preparation has been more for the Olympic qualifiers. If a national title comes along, it will be good as it will give me confidence. The competition in domestic meets is very high. G Sathiyan, Harmeet Desai, Amalraj and Manav Thakkar have been doing really well in recent years.”
Sathiyan and Desai have been able to get some competition. World No 37 Sathiyan played in leagues in Poland and Japan and Desai in European leagues.
“Compared to other international players, the Indians are still at a far end when it comes to playing matches. Japan, Germany and France were having full-fledged league matches. But it is good that the senior nationals are being held before the qualifiers. We will have five weeks of competition and that will help,” said Sathiyan.
The men’s competition will begin from Feb 20.
The senior nationals this time have been restricted to singles events. Manika Batra is the women’s top seed with reigning champion Sutirtha Mukherjee seeded second. “There are 239 players in the women's event and RT-PCR tests were conducted today. All came negative,” Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) secretary, MP Singh, said.
“We’re holding the tournament in a bio-secure bubble. We held the state championships first and now the senior nationals so that players can get some matches before the Olympic qualifiers. We will be holding cadet, sub-junior, junior and youth events one after another in Indore from Feb 26 to March 16 in a bio-bubble,” he said.