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Asian Games

No soft landing for soft tennis No.1 Jay Meena

Jay Meena beat two of the best soft tennis players in the world at the Asian Games before bowing out with one last step left to cross for a first-ever medal for the country. But there was more than met the eye in this near-miss.

No soft landing for soft tennis No.1 Jay Meena

Jay Meena reacts after missing a point during his quarterfinal at the Asian Games


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 7 Oct 2023 7:15 PM GMT

Hangzhou: If one were to wander into the lotus-shaped Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Tennis Centre on Saturday afternoon, the last day of Indian action at the Asian Games, they would have been witness to a strange sight. A group of around ten India jersey-wearing youngsters would have been seen banging their fists on a glass pane as Jay Meena, India's top-ranked soft tennis player, took his shot at history - a first-ever medal for India in the sport - in a sound-proof indoor hall.

None of the loud cheers from his few supporters reached the 23-year-old Jay Meena as he lost 1-4 in the men's singles quarterfinals to eventual silver medallist Chang Yu Sung of Chinese Taipei, the top nation in the world in soft tennis.

But things were not supposed to have looked that strange - till a midnight meeting dragged on because of communication problems - less than 12 hours before the quarterfinal. Meena's match against the Taipei player was supposed to have taken place on centre court, with fans present, before there was a last-minute change of plans because of inclement weather and an apparent bid to have another Taipei player have his match on centre court instead.

"The organisers kept me in a room till midnight, convincing me to agree to have my match at the indoor hall instead of centre court. The Taipei player had the advantage inside because his drives are good, there is less swing. I do not want to give excuses, but the absence of support (because of the sound-proof setting) hampered me. I could see my teammates but not hear them," Meena told The Bridge.

There was also an unprecedented situation in the sport of soft tennis that had to be deliberated upon at the meeting, with the mode of communication between the Indian and Taipei officials being very broken English.

"The meeting dragged on because of miscommunication between the two sides. Due to the nature of the draw and the way results in the group stages panned out, it so happened that the player who would concede their last group match would have an easier route to the semifinals and an assured medal. Both players therefore wanted to concede the match, but that could not be allowed," explained Aniket Khodadhara, joint secretary of the Amateur Soft Tennis Federation of India.

First time I faced an Indian at such level: Meena's opponent

Meena is confident that he could have beaten the Thai and Philippines players to have clinched the historic medal had he been allowed to avoid the Taipei player before the semis. He had already beaten Taipei's top-ranked player as well as Korea's top-ranked player on way to his quarterfinal.

"My failure to get over this step will always rankle because this was a golden opportunity for me and for my sport to become popular in India. It was a moment of pride to represent my nation at the Asian Games, I defeated the Taipei number 1 and the Korea number 1 over the last week, proving that India has grown by leaps in this sport. At the last moment, my quarterfinal had to be shifted to the underground courts because of the weather," he said.

"Jay is a mind-blowing player, we fought for him at the meeting. But I think because of the indoor court, he felt a little alone during his quarterfinal," said Khodadhara, adding that this quarterfinal campaign will also be a huge boost to soft tennis, one of the most underdeveloped sports India is participating in at the Asian Games.

Meena's conquerer Chang Yu Sung, who bowed to an almost-empty 'gallery' at the end of his win before walking over to shake hands with Meena, said, "This was the first time I have faced an Indian at a competition. He was very good. He is still young and has a great future."

Meena, whose eyes welled up with tears as he spoke about how special the last week has been in China, said he is now confident about beating anybody in the world.

"This is the first time that Indians have beaten the best players in the world and reached so far, now I also feel that I am one of the world's best," he said.

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