Archana and Sreeja overcome 'fear factor' to shine at Asian Table Tennis C'Ships
Table tennis in India is on the rise and Archana Kamath and Sreeja Akula have been making quiet but strong waves in the circuit.
Displaying a flamboyant upward curve since the last three years, table tennis in India has been a revelation. If Indian paddlers were not taken seriously on the global table tennis circuit, things have drastically changed since the 2018 Commonwealth Games that all but changed the narrative thanks to Manika Batra, Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran. Being torchbearers of Indian table tennis, the trio have been leading from the front and setting examples that have been stirring enough for the junior crop of players who have finally started stepping out of the shadows and bursting into the limelight and youngsters Archana Kamath and Sreeja Akula are the latest additions to this sensational findings spree.
The 2021 ITTF-ATTU Asian Table Tennis Championships proved to be Indian's most successful outing in recent years. With the last medal coming 45 years ago in 1976, India made up for the medal drought by winning 3 bronze medals from this edition of the prestigious biennial continental championships. The men's squad led by Sharath Kamal, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Harmeet Desai, Manav Thakkar and Sanil Shetty produced stunning performances but it was the comparatively young and budding women's side that was led by the Tokyo-returned Sutirtha Mukherjee and had Archana Kamath, Ayhika Mukherjee and Sreeja Akula in the mix that really made us sit up and take notice of this gathering force of up and coming paddlers.
The #AsianChampionships come to an end, my best performance so far. Bronze medals in both the Men's team event and the Doubles event. Also, reached the quarterfinals in the singles, a career best! Very happy with the performances! 🏓 pic.twitter.com/TAWMSVwGee— Sharath Kamal OLY (@sharathkamal1) October 5, 2021
Immediately after the conclusion of their outings at the WTT Star Contender Doha and Asian TT Championships, both Sreeja Akula and Archana Kamath had an exclusive chat with The Bridge as they merrily looked at the season ahead, fertile for bringing medals and taking Indian table tennis into greater heights. Using the experience they gained from the back-to-back WTT Star Contender Doha and the Asian Championships, both Sreeja and Archana have ingrained new confidence in their game and is finally learning to unfurl their wings and invade fearlessly.
Rousing up a storm - Archana and Sreeja emerge fearless
Frequenting the ITTF junior circuit with a lot of pomp, Archana Kamath and Sreeja Akula have made quiet explosions along the way till at the WTT Star Contender they dared to be fearless and ended up upsetting players ranked higher than them. At the WTT Star Contender in Doha, the 23-year-old Sreeja Akula was successful in overthrowing World No. 21 Hyowon Suh to move into the pre-quarters while Archana Kamath packed in a powerful comeback from behind against Japan's Miyu Nagasaki to seal a place in the quarters. At the Asian Championships as well, both Archana and Sreeja continued to impress against players of Japan, Thailand, Chinese Taipei and Qatar and Kazakhstan with talent and ease.
For Archana, the two outings at Doha gifted her with a new perspective as she tells The Bridge, "Both these tournaments were very good. I got lots of opportunities to play against some really good players. It was a great learning experience for me." At the Asians, Archana impressed in the teams while in the Mixed Doubles with Manav Thakkar, she went as far as the quarter-finals and in the Individuals, Kamath only lost to Shin Yubin of Korea in the Round of 32 clash.
"I've learnt a lot from both these tournaments with respect to my game, how much I need to improve...also, I think how important it is to just keep fighting, playing the match and you never know how things can turn out," the 21-year-old soft-spoken Kamath said.
For Sreeja, the Doha events were more about overcoming her fears and breaking away from certain notions she held, "At the Star Contender event, I beat World No. 21 in the second round, so that was the major upset of the tournament. Personally, that's one of the best upsets I've made until now," the Hyderabad-based paddler chuckled and mentioned. "I felt good, even my coach was there during that tournament and his support helped me a lot. After that match, I was very confident against the Asians and could play well at the Asian TT Championships," Sreeja inferred.
"Earlier I used to think that they are very good, very quick and that will be difficult for me but that has cracked now. But now that the fear factor has gone - I can be confident against the Asians after these two tournaments," the small powerhouse reassuringly asserted.
The Indian women's team, even without their star paddler, Manika Batra were quite impressive as they finished fifth, their best-ever performance. In fact, they did not lose their ties haplessly but rather fought tooth and nail especially against strong ping pong nations like Japan. "This is the first time I got into the Women's Team and played an official tournament. It was very new to me, playing against such top players, playing the team events was really nice, we had very good bonding. It was a lot of fun too playing team, doubles and then singles," she chirpily mentioned.
"In team, we did very well. We lost to Japan in the quarters but it was a very close match. All the 3 matches were in deciders. There is a player called Shibata Saki and Archana Kamath lost in the decider to her and then in the final match, even I lost in the decider. But Saki is a very good player, playing deciders against her is very close. I was also 2-0 up," she pointed out. On the brighter side of things however, "Performances like this gave the team confidence against Asians. We beat Chinese Taipei and Thailand - altogether it was a very good experience. The fear factor is gone," Sreeja, a Mima Ito fan, emphasised once more.
While it was because of Archana's brother that she took up table tennis, for Sreeja, it was her sister who inspired her to take up the sport professionally. It has been a long but eventful journey for both the players who are now en route to becoming the next stars of Indian table tennis as they are brimming with talent. Putting in the hard hours training with coach Somnath Ghosh in his Academy in Hyderabad, Sreeja has grown from strength to strength and even partnered Harmeet Desai in the Mixed Doubles of the Asians. Although the duo lost in the Round of 32 clash, Akula went till the Round of 16 in her Women's Singles outing.
Meanwhile, Archana Kamath, who trains under Bona Thomas John and Sagayaraj at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence is already looking back at her improved streak with a lot of gratitude. Helped in her way by SAI-TOPS, Indian Oil, OGQ, the TTFI and the Karnataka Table Tennis Association, Kamath's future is bright as she is making her transition towards the senior sphere. Her parents and her brother, Abhinav have been her pillars of support and Kamath, her hair cropped all short, candidly mentions that it is because of them that this growth has been possible.
A game of margins, a game of minds
Just like badminton's curve swung with Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu more than a decade back when shuttlers began to take on Asians fearlessly, table tennis is observing the same boom with the trio of Sharath Kamal, Manika Batra and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran showing them how to do the apparently impossible. In table tennis, China has always ruled the roost and Indian players have automatically been afraid to play their game against them - and more than the physicality of the match, the Asians could hand them a defeat mentally way before the match even picked up in action.
The outings at the WTT Star Contender Doha and the Asian Championships have succeeded in ushering in the mindset change in both Archana and Sreeja who are now unafraid to go conquer, seeing their seniors take on the world's best and even hold their ground on certain occasions. Archana remembered her difficult points against a dominating Miyu Nagasaki and mentioned, "Table tennis is as much a mental game as much as it is a physical game. It's very true and it applies to every sport, I feel. During the tough points..I was just enjoying and playing," Kamath mentioned with a chuckle.
"Table tennis has really improved after 2018 CWG when Manika Di won gold and even Sathiyan Bhaiyya and Sharath Bhaiyya are doing really well in the international circuit. Looking at them, the youngsters are getting inspired. So many juniors are now getting exposure, playing international tournaments, improving their rankings, going out for training and playing league matches outside. Our seniors are really helping us a lot, when it comes to giving us guidance about all the pro tours. Altogether it is improving a lot. By Paris 2024, I hope we will get a medal," Sreeja also says, a lot of hope in her voice.
"The fear factor has reduced. Also because our seniors have been doing so well in the last few years and that gives us a lot of confidence. Now the junior players are also doing well at a lot of international tournaments. I think India as a country is really, really coming up in table tennis and it is a very good time for Indian table tennis," Kamath also twins with Sreeja in this thought and considers a medal at Paris 2024 Olympics to be a realistic bet.
What's most heartening to see is that table tennis in India has plenty of hands where the baton can be passed, unlike in badminton and tennis, where there is a dearth of international performers currently. Both Sreeja and Archana remain eager to learn and hungry for medals as they look ahead at the Paris Olympics cycle with a lot of positivity. The very fact that these young women have been able to overcome their fears and unleash their true game is the biggest victory won here.
For Sreeja, it's a packed schedule ahead as she has the North Zone National Rankings in Panchkula, followed by WTT events in Tunisia and Slovenia in October. On the other hand, Archana, though happy remains firmly on her quest to shine brighter and signs off with a promise, "I want to improve a lot more and just take it match by match and keep giving my best."
Indian table tennis is blooming and how, as these youngsters chink the Asian walls, one tournament at a time.