Yogesh Desai stands as an embodiment of passion and grit, who has managed to subvert the ravages of time with considerable ease. The table tennis star has been active on the professional circuit since he was nine, and even at 67 (he turns 68 next month), there is no desire of stopping anytime soon.
“I wish to play till I am 100, God willing,” proclaims the energetic athlete, who opens up about his journey in an exclusive chat with The Bridge. Following his elder brothers, who would play table tennis to spend their evenings in the Railways club in Gujarat, Desai too took to the sport as a youngster and soon harboured bigger dreams. His first national championships for the state was way back in 1966 as a 14-year old, which was the start of many more to follow. After graduating to the men’s singles senior team aged 16, Desai played seven nationals while turning out for Gujarat, but success was hard to come by.
“I would reach the second or the third rounds consistently, but failed to progress further. That’s when I decided to start my own business and shifted to Mumbai in 1985,” says the engineer. However, leaving the sport was tough. “I continued playing table tennis in Mumbai as well, and I got a number of chances to play against the top-ranked players, whom I would defeat consistently. Though I was eligible to play in the veteran’s category after turning 40, I continued playing in the men’s category till 48. Shifting to Mumbai, where I got more chances to hone my skills, made me realize how much the sport meant to me.”
Desai has not taken a break from competitive table tennis in the last 58 years, having turned out in the courts every single season since he picked up the bat. However a moment arrives in every professional player’s career when they are forced to make a choice. A choice between harbouring dreams or retiring into the comforts of everyday living; between pushing the body forward to prove a point or succumbing to the challenges. This moment arrived in 2002 for Desai, when a bike accident seriously injured his ligament.
“I was told by my physiotherapist that I would never be able to play table tennis again. This was unacceptable to me, and even at the age of 50, I kept pushing myself to regain full fitness. It took me three months to walk again, and another seven months to get back playing. When I came back after 11 months of rehabilitation, I played with a limp, but I managed to win my first competition after comeback.” The genuine love for the sport is all too visible, as Desai recounts his most memorable match in his career thus far.
“The match was held on 8th August, 1988. The numbers aligned perfectly in my favour (literally!) as I was taking on a record eight-time national champion Kamlesh Mehta, who had been selected to represent India in the Seoul Olympics that year. It was the first time that table tennis had been included in the grandest stage, and so he was participating in the tournament for some game-time. I was pitted against him, and no one, not even me – an unranked player – thought that he could be defeated. However, winning against him at the age of 37 showed that if there is a will, there definitely is a way.”
His will pushed through once again when he fulfilled his long-held dream in 2005. “I had a dream to win the national championships, which was not fulfilled in my youth. But I did manage to clinch the title in the veteran’s category in 2005 (age group 52-60), and I was beyond overwhelmed.” Since then, he was gone on to clinch three more national titles – two in the 60-65 age group, and one in the 65+ age division.
The accident, in many ways, motivated him to achieve the zenith, as he started taking table tennis more seriously. In 2011, while competing in the Asian Veteran Table Tennis Championships, Desai bagged a silver for India in the doubles along with a bronze in the singles. He managed to win a gold in the team event in the South Asian Veteran Table Tennis Championships in 2017 that was held in Sri Lanka, and helped Maharashtra win the nationals for the third successive time in the 65+ category in December last year. He also participated in seven World Championships after the life-changing incident and is now gearing up to play in his eighth tournament that will be held in France later in June.
The biggest highlight, however, came in December 2019, when Desai was listed as number seven in the world in the official International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) rankings for veterans. Performance in four ranking events was taken into consideration while calculating the overall rankings for the year, and though the Indian took part in only the Doha tournament in November 2019, his silver medal-winning efforts in the singles category in the 65+ division ensured that he entered the top-10. It was the first year that the ITTF had introduced the ranking system for veterans, and Desai, who had won a gold in men’s doubles event in Doha as well, managed to do India proud with his feats.
However, managing to keep up with the changing trends in the sporting world has been anything but easy. “Table tennis has become so much faster now. It is more challenging now, requiring quick reflexes and hand-eye coordination. It is physically exhaustive as well, with the younger players bringing in more technical innovations. It is hard to keep up the same consistency from one tournament to another, and hence, I laud what our young table tennis stars have been achieving for India in the last few years.” It remains no surprise then, that Desai looks to play against the younger legs whenever he is presented with an opportunity to keep himself fit and up-to-date with the latest techniques in the sport.
He also admits that he is not a big fitness freak, but emphasizes that playing a sport has enabled him to be mentally fit in a world where it is easy to be influenced. “Playing a sport has helped me stay away from petty issues and from negativity. It has been like a meditation, and I would urge every youngster to take up some sort of sport for their mental and physical fitness. Sports help you evolve as a person, teaching you lessons that you might not ordinarily learn.”
The youngsters need not look further than Desai. He has challenged time, stood tall even when failures threatened to hamper his progress, and never let the flicker of hope die. “I will return with the World Championship this year,” he signs off.