Sreeja on her tears and the CWG high - Hindustan Times
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Sreeja on her tears and the CWG high

By, New Delhi
Aug 14, 2022 07:26 PM IST

Dejected after losing her singles bronze playoff in the Birmingham Games, she looks back at bouncing back to win the mixed doubles gold with senior pro Sharath Kamal.

To say Sreeja Akula was distraught would be an understatement. After narrowly losing the women’s singles bronze playoff, the 24-year-old went to her room in Birmingham and was inconsolable. The pain was too much to take, especially having also lost the semi-final in another tight contest the previous day. “I was very disappointed, particularly because I lost despite playing really well. I was crying a lot,” says Akula.

India's Sreeja Akula competes during the women's bronze medal table tennis match at CWG 2022(AP) PREMIUM
India's Sreeja Akula competes during the women's bronze medal table tennis match at CWG 2022(AP)

It took calls from the team’s psychologist and mental trainer Gayatri Vartak and coach Somnath Ghosh to calm down Akula as she had another match to play—the most important one—in the next few hours. Having also failed to medal in women’s doubles and women’s team events, the mixed doubles final with the seasoned Sharath Kamal, 40, was her final chance of redemption.

Once persuaded to pull herself together, Akula took some rest before returning to the National Exhibition Centre for the final table tennis match of the day, against Javen Choong and Karen Lyne of Malaysia. Akula maintained her composure to win the contest pairing Sharath 3-1 to bag her first Commonwealth Games (CWG) gold. “Luckily, I had 6-7 hours between the two matches. I thought okay, I have the mixed doubles final now and I only want gold. I decided to play all out and go for it,” she says.

The Hyderabad player carried that attitude not just in the final but throughout the tournament, often taking charge and the responsibility of attacking their opponents with Sharath playing second fiddle. “The Malaysian pair had beaten Manika (Batra) di and (G) Sathiyan bhaiya in the quarter-finals. We took some inputs from them. They said the Malaysians were really good against pimples (pimpled rubber is to counter spin). I realised I shouldn’t just depend on my rubber—I have pimpled rubber on my backhand—and go thinking that if I put the ball with the pimpled side, we can get a point. I made up my mind to attack whenever possible. That was the only strategy. Sharath bhaiya told me to play freely, play quality attack whenever I can and not expect a point with my rubber.”

Despite the significance of the match, Akula was never overwhelmed. “I had no pressure at all in the final because after playing so many matches in all the events and losing very close matches, my confidence was high. I was set to the conditions and table. I thought I’ll just play free and try everything I had learnt. Maybe after a loss we feel that in the next match we'll try everything; it was like that for me," she says.

Timely approach

It was Ghosh who made the move to get Akula to partner Sharath at the CWG. It was at the Shillong nationals in April that Ghosh decided to request his close friend Sharath to partner the Hyderabad player at Birmingham. Sharath and the Table Tennis Federation of India’s selection committee agreed. “I felt very lucky when I got to know that I'll be playing with Sharath bhaiya,” says the 24-year-old, employed with the Reserve Bank of India.

Prior to the CWG, the pair had played together only once, at the 2019 Commonwealth Championships. That time too it was by chance that they partnered. “It was unexpected. Sharath bhaiya and Manika di were to play together but Manika di fell sick and returned home. I didn't even get an entry for the team event. Because it was held in India (Cuttack), I got an extra entry. I was the only one left out there and had a similar playing style to Manika di,” says the world No 77. “They decided to put us together to try us out. I had no idea what to do—it was my first big tournament in seniors but we still won bronze.”

It has been a great year for Akula. She won her first senior national singles crown, and the doubles title too with Ayhika Mukherjee. Akula now has a Commonwealth Games gold. She will next play at the August 23-28 WTT Feeder at Olomouc, Czech Republic, and in the WTT Contender in Muscat from September 4-10. “Oman will be a big tournament for me. Then we have the South Zone national ranking tournament from September 13, the National Games followed by the World Championships (Sept 30-Oct 9). It’s going to be a hectic month," concluded Akula, who aims to break into the world’s top 50 in rankings this year.

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