Sathiyan and I surprised the opponents: Harmeet Desai reflects after winning gold at WTT Tunis
After a surreal victory at WTT Tunis, Harmeet Desai looks back on the spectacular run so far and the growth of table tennis in his home state, Gujarat.
Indian table tennis is basking in its own bubble of glory as the laurels keep gathering slowly but steadily with time. From days when Indians winning medals in table tennis was a seemingly rare event, at least with a consistent frequency to the current scene where it's getting difficult to imagine an Indian contingent returning empty-handed from a table tennis tournament - things have clearly changed.
At the recently concluded 2021 World Table Tennis (WTT) Contender Tunis, the 'unusual' pair of Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Harmeet Desai embarked on a beautiful run and went on to lift the title, grabbing the gold in the Men's Doubles event, a ceremonious and surreal feat, by any means, given how the duo were playing together after 3 years. The Indian pair defeated the French combination of Emmanuel Lebesson and Alexandre Cassin in the final with scores of 11-9, 4-11, 11-9, 11-5 to seal the victory.
For the Indian men's team it has been a particularly good spell of late. At the 2021 Asian Championships, the team won bronze while the pair of Harmeet Desai and Manav Thakkar and the duo of Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Sharath Kamal returned with bronzes in the Doubles event. Following that run up with a gold medal win at Tunis is indeed commendable and only certifies the rising form of Indian table tennis.
Speaking to The Bridge exclusively after the win, a jubilant Harmeet Desai gushed about how rewarding the recent period has been. "The last 2-3 months have been really good. Winning 2 medals at the Asian Championships and now a gold medal at a WTT tournament for the first time in a doubles event, makes it really special," the paddler from Gujarat mentioned.
Sathiyan and Harmeet's run was additionally surreal because the duo hadn't paired up in the last 3 years and a lot of it was working on instinct and improvisation, which makes this victory so sweet. "It's a really good feeling and it gives a lot of confidence because we defeated top-ranked players enroute to the championship and this gives a huge morale boost. It also gives a lot of satisfaction that the way we are working - we are on the right track," Desai mentioned, sounding reassured and confident.
Change of partners acted as the surprise punch
In men's doubles, the usual pairing of Sathiyan and Sharath and Harmeet and Manav is what people are used to but at the WTT Contender Tunis, the strategic partnering of Sathiyan with Harmeet might have been the biggest trick out of the bag. They may have played way back at the 2018 Commonwealth Games but incidentally enough, it was them who actually played the match that sealed the historic gold against Nigeria. The fact that they have always had on-court chemistry was undoubtable and at Tunis, when reunited, the sparks flew again!
"I partnered with Sathiyan nearly 3-4 years ago and the last time I played with him was at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. After that, we directly played at this tournament. We didn't even practice or time to prepare for the doubles event," Desai chuckled and mentioned. "Having said that, we know each other well and we can complement each other's games well also. We play quite similarly. That helped us...we played very quick and that surprised the opponents who didn't get time to react," the World No. 73 remarked.
Lauding his partner for being the explosive force he is and matching the energy of Desai himself, the 28-year-old mentioned, "Playing with Sathiyan has always been fun and we made a comeback in the first tournament and went on to win the title, that is really special!"
For Harmeet Desai personally, it has been good times since he broke into the Top 100 and went on to even win the 2019 ITTF Indonesia Open, a first by an Indian player in the Asian circuit. Moreover, he also won the National Championship title for 2019-20, another first in the list and he made his state - Gujarat proud by doing so - the streak has only gotten better with the medals now. "My next goal is to enter the Top 50 of the World Rankings. Our eyes are set on the upcoming Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. I would definitely like to win a medal in Singles in the Commonwealth Games," Desai mentioned, clearly still not over the Gold Coast triumph.
The rise of table tennis in Gujarat
Hailing from Surat, Desai has seen how the culture of table tennis in his home State has transformed over the years and currently, it is beaming all things bright and positive for the days ahead. Table tennis would usually see players hailing from either West Bengal or South India, the western states, especially Gujarat would not feature regularly. However, the spirit of change was always roaming in the air. Further, when at the Tokyo Paralympics, the unthinkable happened as Bhavina Patel went on to win the silver - a first by any table tennis player, both able or impaired to win at the stage of the Olympics, a shift took place.
If the sport had been growing at a timid pace in Gujarat, Patel's victory inevitably created a huge surge. "Table Tennis is rising in India and especially in Gujarat, the past few years, the State has been doing really well in Table Tennis. Earlier Gujarat was not one of the top states who could perform or bring a medal at the National level but now we have good players in all categories - there are many national and international players," Desai reflects, a resident of the western State of the country.
"Since the win of Bhavina Patel, many youngsters want to take up the sport. This will improve the level of table tennis in Gujarat and increase the competition as well as help in promoting the infrastructure of Gujarat and make a way for them to represent India in the future," the 28-year-old mentioned, referring to the holistic development of the sport.
As Gujarat climbs the ladder in table tennis nationally, the Indian team is no longer the underdogs of the international circuit. The players - be it Sathiyan Gnanasekaran or Harmeet Desai or Sharath Kamal or Manika Batra, have done their bit to ensure Indian table tennis is very much their on the global map, generally populated by Asian powerhouses.
🥉 in Men's Team ✅— Harmeet Desai (@HarmeetDesai) October 5, 2021
🥉 in Men's Doubles ✅
Had an extraordinary Asian Table Tennis Championships 2021 bringing home 2️⃣ medals. 🏓
Thanks to Joola, @ttfitweet @Media_SAI, @sportsgujarat, and my coaches in Ochsenhausen for their support.#harmeetdesai #asianchampionships pic.twitter.com/v90S9BY1dc
"Indian table tennis players are improving - men, women and the youngsters, all of it. We have better conditions, better coaches now. There is a chance to medal in 2024 Olympics in the Mixed Doubles if Sathiyan and Manika are playing," Desai mentioned optimistically, fresh off the high spirits of the win and driven by the sheer motivation to push hard, speaking about the realistic chances of medalling at the Paris Olympics.
"There is also a small chance to win in Teams, if we qualify. We have defeated big teams like Japan, France earlier. On a given day, if we 3 (Sathiyan, Manika and Harmeet) can play well then there is a chance for a medal in 2024," Desai put forth, a new burst of optimism coursing through his veins as he looks ahead to the upcoming tournaments in Slovenia.