Let me begin with a confession here. This story is unlike any other story you might read about athlete struggles. It is not a rags-to-riches tale. It’s not a story about how I battled a lack of support and encouragement to pursue my dream. In fact, Table Tennis wasn’t even my dream.
There are several athletes in India who are starved for recognition. As a country, we are diverse, and a lack of talent is far from the case. Often, the most talented people are buried deep somewhere just waiting for the right circumstances to give them the necessary platform.
It is a sad state of affairs. In this situation, some get lucky and find their ground. Most don’t.
For my part, I wanted to become an engineer. Table Tennis was secondary. You know how the sport is. It’s played entirely widely in India and, for a while, I was one of the people who indulged in the game just for the sake of it.
So, this is not a typical story. Instead, it’s the story about a young boy who took his own time to realise his destiny. But once he did, he never looked back in spite of all the hurdles and obstacles he faced.
I picked up the game in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2012 that my association with Subramaniam Raman began. When I started playing under him, I was ranked somewhere around 410 in the world. I wasn’t someone who would have been taken seriously in the world circuit at all.
As a student of St.Joseph’s College of Engineering in Chennai, I was someone who had always been academically inclined. Even when I was in school, training took a setback because I tried juggling studies and my game.
There’s a little rule in Politics. So, while forming a government, the best case scenario is to have a healthy ruling party. But that alone is not enough. You need to have a strong opposition too. The same rule applies to athletes.
If you train alone, there is no way that you can measure your progress or get better. For me, what worked was when I saw my peers doing well on the World circuit. These were players that I had been competing with since my junior level days.
When you see people training with the same facilities as you are and doing better than you, something clicks. If you are indeed serious about pursuing a path, this is the kind of motivation you need to get things started.
Suddenly, I had all the motivation you could ask for and, gradually, I discovered that this was something I wanted to do. It took time but, in the end, Table Tennis found me. It finally made me realise what my true calling was.
Training with Raman sir has taught me a few life lessons. It’s a competitive world in sports. The higher you climb, it inevitably gets tougher. But that’s the trick. You need to use the level of competition to your advantage.
That’s how you get better, eventually. You continuously improve your game and improvise your strategies. Once you can gauge where you stand in the world, you understand how much it is that you have yet to achieve. There’s no security, the higher up you go. I may be in the right place today, but I must fight to make sure that I not only hold that place but also gradually improve.
So, in the face of stiff competition, we are always kept on our toes.
It’s important to be fearless, to be undaunted in the face of challenges. Before Mr Raman, I used to play textbook table tennis while suppressing all my natural instincts. As a result, I was more of a defensive player who was a little hesitant to play his own game.
Since 2012, that changed. To stand shoulder to shoulder with stiff world level competition, playing your natural game is very important. Coach taught me that. So, now if you see me play, I play a more aggressive game closer to the table. I used to be quite fast and agile, and that’s what we capitalised on. That’s why there has been such a drastic improvement.
In 2014, I came into the Indian senior team and was the top-ranked player in the country. In the World, I remained in the 200s. So, there definitely was some progress. But it wasn’t enough, and things were not happening as fast as I would like.
2016 was the turning point in my life. Winning the Belgium Open in September that year, my first pro-tour title at that, it gave me a taste of success that I had long needed. And it was all the sweeter because close to a year back; I was plagued with a personal loss that had a significant impact on the steady progress I was making.
Looking back, I should think my father would have been proud of the way I dealt with things since 2015. He was majorly into Table Tennis, and he always encouraged me. In a sense, he provided some direction to the rudderless ship that I was when I was trying to juggle several things at the same time.
His influence in my life cannot be described in words. So, to recover from his loss and win in 2016- that was one of the best feelings. It felt like my entire time in Table Tennis so far had been worth it. That was the moment I thought I could make a mark in the international circuit.
Champions are forged in fire. They have reached that level purely as a result of concentration and never losing sight of their targets. That is why Sachin Tendulkar is Sachin Tendulkar- he batted on even when faced with the news of his father’s demise.
Things have only gone upwards since 2016. I started working on polishing my skills and fine tuning some minute details in my game. 2017 did not start on a good note with a terrible performance at the Asians, but I refused to be deterred. There’s always a scope for improvement. All you have to do is stick to it and not give up.
That year, I won a second Pro Tour title which sort of cemented my faith in myself. One title may be a fluke but two? Two made me realise my potential. It was around mid-2017 that my drastic upward curve began.
At the beginning of last year, I was ranked at around 120 in the world. Our target for the end of the year was 70. At the time Coach told me about his expectations, I had never expected to fulfil them. Jumping 50 ranks is quite a difficult task.
What happened next, surprised all of us.
I ended 2017 doing something rare for Indian table tennis players. I became the second table tennis player from the country, since Achanta Sharath Kamal, to break into the Top 50. As of December 2017, I am ranked 49th in the world. I was the youngest to achieve that feat and, as of now, I am the only Indian in the Top 50.
The journey doesn’t end here. If I were satisfied with every little achievement, I would never get anywhere. This year will mark my debut in the Commonwealth Games, and I will surely be aiming for Gold. It’s a testament to how far I have come that Gold at a major World level tournament is now a realistic possibility.
Coach has not given up on pushing me. Now, my new target for 2018 is to break into the Top 20. Will I over-achieve this time too? I shall try my best. Ultimately, that’s the only thing required of me.
I began by saying that mine wasn’t a story that described a life of struggle in the basic sense of the word. I had been fortunate enough to receive the best possible support I could from my family as well as my coaches. Initially, what was missing was the sense of direction.
Life gives you opportunities. It’s up to you how you utilise them. It’s never too late for a fresh start if you are serious about going after your dreams. Sometimes, just once in a while, it’s important to take a step back and reflect upon your capability. Understand your potential. Set your targets and leave no stone unturned when it comes to achieving them.
Dreams always have a potential of turning into reality. However, the path you take to achieve that journey is up to you. Make sure you end up making the most of it and having as much fun along the way as you possibly can.