"Sharath Kamal inspired my childhood dream": Newly-crowned National champ Sreeja Akula
Counting her blessings on having the likes of Sharath Kamal mentor her, newly-crowned table tennis National Champion Sreeja Akula reflects on the elusive win and talks future plans.
Only a select few get to be familiar with the sheer joy of watching your childhood dream manifest into a thing of reality - Hyderabad's little-big table tennis sensation Sreeja Akula, is now one of them.
Having put in the long hours and the hard work for almost 10 years now, the 23-year-old Sreeja has finally been able to capture the elusive gold medal and crown herself as the National Champion - but it wouldn't have been possible without her team of coaches and the guardian figure of Indian table tennis, one Achanta Sharath Kamal, egging her on.
"Sharath Bhaiyya has been my biggest motivator," Sreeja Akula tells The Bridge, days after her big win, the note of gratitude ringing in her voice.
The Hyderabadi paddler ended an almost six-decade-long wait for a National Champion from the City of Nizams by defeating the veteran Mouma Das in the title clash at Shillong recently, winning triumphantly, 4-1. Not only the singles though, but Akula with her partner Ayhika Mukherjee also went on to lift the title for the women's doubles with their dominant show.
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"I have been working very hard to win the National Championships, it's been almost 10 years now," Akula, still on cloud nine, confessed.
In fact, at the previous edition of the National Championships, Sreeja had gone till the finals again before losing to Manika Batra - it has always been a tale of 'almost' winning the Nationals for her before this.
"Coming into the tournament, I didn't put too much pressure on myself. In the back of my mind, I knew there are the Commonwealth and Asian Games to focus on, but I knew I had to give my best," the youngster revealed.
"But, this year I have been working hard on my fitness too with Hirak Bagchi and doing a lot of mental training with Ms Gayatri, so that has helped me incredibly," the paddler who plays with pimple rubber, just like Manika Batra, mentioned.
"The past three months were tough...I had many international tournaments and had good match practice, but I trained in Hyderabad and Chennai before Nationals," she explained.
"Moreover, on the table, my coach, Somnath Ghosh, worked hard on my forehand topspin - that helped me gain points against Mouma Di, as well," she said, sounding content.
Taking on a veteran like Mouma Das can be no easy task especially after staving off a stiff challenge from Ayhika Mukherjee in the semi-finals.
"Playing against Mouma Di is always challenging because she is so experienced. I know her game, her serves but I would find it difficult to counter them previously," Akula recalled.
"My coach helped me strategise for it before the match and gave me half an hour of training to receive her serves, so I had a clear game plan," she revealed with a chuckle.
The great difference
Juggling both the international and the national circuit, Sreeja Akula has realised the great and stark difference between the two.
"The playing conditions are very different between an international arena and a domestic one, the game styles are also not the same at all. I have to train accordingly before an international or a domestic level event," she revealed.
"Outside, our main threat are the Asians who play a very attacking game and I have to focus on my blocks, they are incredibly fast. In India, it's a wholly different story, here players attack one ball and push the next, so this creates more opportunities for me to attack."
"My forehand topspin, which I have been working on, helps in that case and I even got most of my points against Mouma Di using that," she said.
In Shillong, where the National Championships were held, the conditions were more trying too because of the high altitude and it took a while for Akula to adjust and treat the ball accordingly.
"The ball was floating when I was hitting it hard the first day, I re-focussed on hitting slow next but I used more of spin and it worked for me," she said.
The impact of seniors
One thing that Sreeja Akula readily admits before anything else is also how seniors, especially those like Sharath Kamal, who at 39 years of age won a mind-boggling, record-making 10th National Championship title also at Shillong, has helped her achieve this childhood dream, infusing and injecting fearless motivation in her.
"Earlier we'd be afraid to play against Asians, but now after seeing our seniors - Sharath Bhaiyya, Sathiyan, Manika didi go out and create such upsets, we are no longer fearful of facing anyone, we can beat anybody almost," she said with conviction.
"He is a great player and his level is completely different but he is also an amazing mentor. During our training sessions in Chennai, he'd always come around and give us tips, play strokes with us, constantly motivate and encourage us to do better," she revealed.
Having partnered with the legendary Indian paddler during the Commonwealth Championships as well, Akula has learned a lot from the great maestro of table tennis.
"I have big plans for the rest of the year. I want to play more international tournaments, gain more exposure and keep winning more medals," the newly-crowned National Champion said with a chuckle while hoping she cracks into the Top 30 soon.