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Table Tennis

Hard work, grit and passion - Suhana Saini helps drive the rise of India in Youth Table Tennis

The U-15 World No. 3, Suhana Saini talks about her hunger to win a medal at the upcoming World Youth Table Tennis C'Ships in an exclusive chat with The Bridge.

Youth table tennis star Suhana Saini - the U-15 World No. 3

Youth table tennis star Suhana Saini - the U-15 World No. 3 (Source: ITTF/Suhana Saini)


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 20 Dec 2021 10:38 AM GMT

Table tennis in India is far-reaching and doesn't limit itself to success on the senior tour alone where the Manika Batra's, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran's, Sharath Kamal's, and Harmeet Desai's are stomping around only. The most recent outing at the 2021 World Table Tennis Championships in Houston proved to be a path-breaker in many ways as the medals were missed out on by a whisker only. In fact, giving the senior brigade stiff competition is India's youth table tennis scene which is vibrant and promising more than ever and is led by a pack of youngsters who are willing to take on the world, one match at a time, like Suhana Saini, Yashashwini Ghorpade, Diya Chitale, Payas Jain and Swastika Ghosh, to name a few.

On one such particular victorious stride has been Suhana Saini, all of 15 yet making ripples all over the World Table Tennis Youth circuit with her brilliance on the table. Speaking to The Bridge exclusively, the young table tennis sensation has big dreams to nurture and channels a great passion for the game and an unfathomable hunger to conquer and win more medals.

The medal shower brought by Suhana Saini

Suhana after her gold medal win at Szombathely (Source: Suhana Saini)

For Suhana, 2021 has been a brilliant year - she has travelled far and wide and hoisted herself up the rankings to be placed as the World No. 3 in U-15, World No. 13 in U-17 and also, World No. 21 in U-19. En route to this achievement, she won the gold medals in the U-15 category at the WTT Youth Contenders 2021 in Otocec, Tunis, Muscat, Senec, Szombathely as well, firmly cementing her position as the one-to-watch-out-for on the U-15 circuit.

"Last few months have been a rollercoaster ride with so many tournaments...and the fact that I've won many of them shows that the training I've put in is showing its results on the table. Of course, every match is like a test - either you excel in it or you learn, that is you put the wrong answer for the question you already knew," a very reassuringly confident Suhana Saini mentioned in a conversation with The Bridge.

Brought into table tennis by her parents who had determined that their daughter will take this sport up, given their infectious love for it - Suhana only made their dream a reality, fuelled by her own love for the game. At just 9 years of age, Suhana was already on the global circuit, winning the gold at the US Open and it has been no looking back since then.

"Because I've been winning, by God's grace, I have been able to gain confidence as well and get better in every match I play. I played against some Europeans and Asians with different playing styles - both have helped me improve the game in different ways," the youngster reflected ahead of the upcoming World Youth Table Tennis Championships.

Picking up a lot of tricks of the trade and perfecting them, Suhana is a quick learner, impressing with her easy-going attitude off-court and dominating force on the table. "There are a bunch of things to improve - especially the World Youth Championships to be held in Portugal. It's my first Youth Championships so I want to show my best game as it is my last U-15 tournament," Suhana expectantly said, the hope in her voice clear as day after returning from a gruelling session of practice.

In retrospect, the European leg of the WTT Youth tour has brought about a huge exposure to Suhana and co. who have made the most out of it, going toe to toe with the world's best and learning to remain dauntless at every instance. "My best match was against World No. 2 Voronina Vlada from Russia. I really didn't go into the match with the mindset of beating her but maybe somewhere I knew I could it and play my best - it really gave me confidence after winning," Suhana recollected, giving herself a tiny pat on the back for the magnificent run so far.

Having met with success at an early age, Suhana, displays a different maturity when it comes to handling it. A multiple-time National Champion, Suhana doesn't let the success get to her head and remains steadfast on the goal, no matter how big an achievement she is making. "I won U-19 and U-17 together. You have to stay grounded and work even harder because every player in the country is looking to beat you. You have to literally do so much extra so that you stay on the top," the Rohtak-born girl mentioned.

For now, Portugal is where Suhana's mind is focussed on and she seems impatient to get a medal there. "My short-term goal is to get the medal in my category at the World Youth Championships," Suhana declared, well-aware and ready for the competition that waits for her there.

Age doesn't matter, hard work does

Suhana Saini

For a girl who is just 15, Suhana isn't the regular teenager, she has big dreams and she isn't one to be thrown off the scent from it because of certain conditioned thoughts. "My plan is to get the spot on the Indian women's senior team. I know it's difficult as I'm just 15. But I don't think age really matters, it is the hard work that counts. According to my coach's plan, I was the probable for playing in Youth Olympics 2022 but as it got postponed, I want to really participate in 2024 Paris Olympics and 2028, I'm on it," Suhana tells The Bridge, her voice emphatic and hopeful and tinged with excitement for the future ahead.

And why won't she want to be a part of the big girl's group as well, given how much she has been inspired by Manika Batra and Archana Kamath.

"The mindset of the seniors plays a very big role in inspiring us. All of them - Manav Thakkar, Manika Di, Sathiyan Bhaiyya, Sharath Bhaiyya, Archana Kamath - are all very bold players and they are very strong as well," Suhana mentioned, a little in awe of their achievements as well.

Suhana Saini with Diya, Yashashwini, Swastika and Isa Cok and Hana Goda (Source: Suhana Saini)

However, the boom in youth table tennis has been remarkable and it has been Suhana, Yashashwini, Diya, Payas and Swastika who have been leading from the front. "Now, SAI, Khelo India, and other companies sponsor us. I'm supported by Lakshya Sports - they are sending us abroad to participate in the WTT tournaments and practice in different clubs. Earlier, the Indian junior team was not getting enough tours but now SAI is giving us the importance and sanctioning so many WTT Youth tournaments which explain the rise of youth table tennis in India," Suhana explained, heaping praises on her fellow paddler-friends, Yashashwini or Yashu, as she calls her, Swastika and Payas.

This young troop of players boasts of a very undaunted style of table tennis and are ready for new challenges, learning along the way. Suhana lauds Yashu and mentions how everyone is afraid of playing against U-17 World No. 4 player because of the way she uses the rubber on her bat. For Payas, who is the U-17 World No. 2, Suhana remains equally enthusiastic, especially because he happens to be her cousin and she gushed, "Whenever Payas wins, it feels like I have won, it's that special! Overall, none of us have any jealousy and we are all very good friends. I wish us good luck for the future and hope that we can go to the Youth Olympics soon."

The cataclysmic role of senior paddlers and correct coaching

Suhana with her coach, R. Rajesh (Source: Suhana Saini)

Behind the success of youth table tennis, however, there are other players too that are contributing to the success of this young brood of players. The key area where Indian table tennis has changed is in its coaching styles - a lot of changes and development has taken place, all of which are helping in the shaping of well-rounded players. "Earlier there were very few coaches in India who took coaching as a full-time profession. If you see now, in a city there are so many academies and the competition is more, hence the result is also going up. My own coach, Mr R. Rajesh, a renowned National player who played in the Spanish league for many years has helped me so much...so many former international players have started coaching too," Suhana pointed out.

With these new techniques of coaching and the examples set by the senior paddlers - Manika Batra, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Sharath Kamal, the youngsters are not shaky and unsure about their 'formidable' opponents from China, Japan and certain European countries.

"The Chinese are strong and hard to beat but they aren't a threat. It's just like a challenge. I have beaten Chinese players a few times - they are very quick and mentally very strong," Suhana casually but confidently says. "Before fitness wasn't given enough importance but now almost every academy has a fitness trainer, a physiotherapist, and a mental trainer. A player must be very strong mentally," Suhana attributes.

Suhana with her favourite Indian paddler - Sharath Kamal (Source: Suhana Saini)

"My role models are Sharath Bhaiyya and Manika Didi and also Sathiyan Bhaiyya. Their appearance and that confidence boost me up. International players talk about them. When I see them play in the National rankings, I learn a lot from them. Sharath Bhaiyya, if he is up against a junior, never treats a junior on the table in a different way. His dominance on the table is inspiring," Suhana mentioned, openly fan-girling over the legendary table tennis player.

With the World Youth Table Tennis Championships just around the corner in Portugal, it is go-time once again for Suhana and co., who remain hungry and impatient for the win. Only medals, preferably of a golden hue can satisfy this untameable hunger as Indian table tennis grows from strength to strength both on the senior as well as the youth level.

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