2018 has been a good year for Table Tennis in India.
Right from the very start of the year, Indian paddlers have been doing well, both domestically and internationally.
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran achieved his career best ranking in the sport right at the start of this year. Manika Batra also broke into the limelight and became India's no. 1 TT player. However, the cherry on the cake came when the Indian Table Tennis team won several medals at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Both the Indian Men's and Women's teams claimed the Gold medal at the Games, lifting the sport into the limelight. Various other players achieved podium finishes as well, such as Sharath Achanta (Bronze, Singles) and Manika Batra (Gold, Singles).
In 2018, many young players emerged as well, hoping to take the sport to new heights. One of them was youngster Manav Thakkar.
18-year-old Manav Thakkar recently made the jump from junior to senior competition. The youngster hails from Surat and has been doing well in the Junior circuits. Thakkar is being touted as the next big thing in Table Tennis and not without cause. He was recently crowned the World no.1 in the U-18 category.
Big things are expected from the Surat-born Manav Thakkar
However, things might have gone very differently for Thakkar, if not for his parents. As it turns out, the youngster had previously opted for skating but had to drop it due to injury concerns. Luckily for Thakkar, both his parents played Table Tennis in their free time, helping him develop a taste for this game.
"When I was six, both my parents were constantly playing Table Tennis at home. They both were doctors by profession but played the game in their spare time," Thakkar told The Bridge.
"Initially, I had gone with skating. However, skating is a highly injury-prone sport. I was constantly falling, getting hurt, and as a result, taking too many offs. By the age of 14-15, I had to leave it," recalled the youngster.
It was only then that Thakkar properly got into Table Tennis. Inspired by his parents and uplifted by his coaches, the youngster started a journey which might one day lead him to greatness.
"My parents were playing Table Tennis but I was very active around the game. So I finally tried my hand at the sport"
"It started as a hobby and it was my father who trained me at first, " says Thakkar, "The first coach I got in Surat told me that you will become a State champion one day. Slowly, I started preparing and playing well and eventually I became the State champion."
"Eventually, I shifted to the PSPB Academy in Ajmer and there I played against many top players. I played with them and I played well. Slowly but surely TT became my passion and my goal in life," Thakkar concludes.
The transition from junior to senior has not been easy for the youngster, however; as he admits to a sudden increase in competition.
"It's very difficult for me to adjust right now. The senior players don't give up that easily, as compared to those at the junior level. They fight for every single point. I am having a little trouble adjusting but that will go away in time. "
"I will overcome that problem with the more matches I play. I will eventually gain more exposure and start winning more matches," declares the youngster.
Now playing at the senior level, Thakkar was also recently drafted in the Ultimate Table Tennis. Conceived along the lines of many other sports leagues in India, UTT aims to bring Table Tennis to the very fore and now Thakkar is a part of this revolution.
The youngster admits that training and playing with foreign coaches has helped improve his game. Along with improving in skill, the youngster accepts that he has improved mentally.
"I am training with these foreign players. They are really good and many of them are Olympians," says Thakkar, "I am getting great experience playing with them. How they prepare for the match, what is their diet, how they keep up their fitness. I take their instructions and I work on them."
"I think I am playing well in UTT as well, and I have got a great opportunity." states the youngster.
And with good reason too. Thakkar recently stunned World no. 18 Kristian Karlsson in UTT, inspiring his team to a stunning victory. To give the whole situation a little perspective, when Thakkar beat Karlsson, he was ranked 223 places above the Swedish paddler.
Staying Strong Mentally
The Surat-born paddler says that he is improving mentally as well, an aspect which has hurt him on many occasions previously.
"Mentally, I am better than before," says Thakkar, "I don't give up easily now."
However, the youngster admits this was an issue before. He even admits to facing anxiety issues in front of a big crowd and eventually throwing away his lead.
"It happened twice or thrice before that when I was winning. I got anxiety and because of that, I lost. I'm leading and I'm losing," recalls the youngster, "It happened many times. But I realized that it is all in my mind. I have to work more, focus more and I have to play to my skills."
The 18-year-old reformed his game, however, eventually increasing his focus and converting potential victories into definite ones, "I try to focus on each and every point. I say to myself that you have to go ahead and take a point, your opponent will not surrender it easily.
"Eventually, it got easier over time. I am not losing as many games as before. However, whenever I am losing, it is because of this only," the youngster bravely admits.
What the Future Holds
Psychologically, sports can have that effect on even the best. That fleeting feeling of loss or eventual loss even when you are on top. It has affected a lot of sportspersons in the past and it will affect a lot in the future.
However, the will to take hits physically and mentally, and yet soldier on is what differentiates the very best from the rest of the pack. Thakkar, in his admissions, has shown that will; recognizing his shortcomings, accepting his mistakes, and yet looking forward to making the necessary changes in time.
With a mentality like that, the sky is the limit for the youngster.
For now, however, Thakkar will go and link up with the national team squad before heading out to Jakarta and Palembang for the Asian Games. With strong skills and mentality to back him one can accept him to win hearts, if not medals.