Tokyo Olympics Prediction: The realistic chance for Indian table tennis
Dominated by China and South Korea, Indian paddlers will have a difficult time at the Tokyo Olympics and their lone hope in Table Tennis realistically rests in the Mixed Doubles event.
Table tennis has seen a surge in popularity only very recently and it has joined the club of the two other main racquet sports - badminton and tennis, with much pomp. While there hasn't been a scarcity of talent in the country, a number of factors needed to work in tandem to produce champion paddlers. For the past few decades, this coordination has come into place and with such synchronization, India is also moulding top table tennis stars like Manika Batra, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Sutirtha Mukherjee and of course, the veteran, Achanta Sharath Kamal.
Carrying the tri-colour for the nation to the Tokyo Olympics, these four paddlers will be heading to Japan to do the impossible - get a medal for India in table tennis at the quadrennial Games. Seasoned with rave victories scripted at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2018 Asian Games - the Indian table tennis contingent had broken the glass ceiling with Manika Batra becoming the golden girl of the sport overnight while Gnanasekaran, Sharath Kamal and Sutirtha Mukherjee also joining the list of glistening medallists.
Securing a massive boost with those wins in 2018, the Indian paddlers looked ready to take on the world at the Olympic stage. However, with the Games just 15 days away now, reality knocks on the door and it's high time we differentiate between the competition present in the CWG or the Asiad and that present in the Olympics.
With the pressure meter anyway scaling up as table tennis powerhouses of China and South Korea will come to assume control of the proceedings, India's chances will be extremely strained. China, which boasts of having 53 medals just from table tennis itself and South Korea, 18 are the leading two members on the medal tally list and are formidable forces to reckon with.
Tough chance for Indian paddlers in individual events
In India, table tennis is still a budding sport, as far as getting the top honours are concerned. Dominated by the Chinese and the South Koreans very wholly, the competition at the Olympics is incredibly intense. Almost robotically crafted for medal-glory, China produces paddlers who are destined for Olympic success much like South Korea too.
Closer home, in India, this kind of set-up or mindset is missing. To possibly see India as a celebrated nation in table tennis, the wait is going to be a very long one. At the Tokyo Olympics, Indian paddlers Manika Batra, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Sutirtha Mukherjee and Achanta Sharath Kamal will have to primarily tend to their individual events at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium while simultaneously watching out in the Mixed Doubles.
The individual categories where India has qualified - namely, men's singles and women's singles will be fraught with top paddlers from China and South Korea who won't be allowing any breathing space for the Indians. Given the fact that Indians do not have too much match exposure, it will be a near-impossible task to sail through the preliminary rounds in the individual events.
Ray of hope for Indian paddlers in Mixed Doubles
With every draw posing a plethora of challenges for the Indian paddlers in their individual events, the most realistic chance that Indians have at possibly medalling at Tokyo is in the Mixed Doubles event. Spearheading the hopes in the mixed doubles will be the 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist duo of Manika Batra and Achanta Sharath Kamal.
Set to debut as an event for the first time at the Olympics, the mixed doubles will see close competition with every NOC sending in only one pair each to the Games. The duo of Manika Batra and Achanta Sharath Kamal has been displaying good form and at the Asian Olympic Qualifiers held at Doha in March, the Sharath-Manika combine produced a gritty performance and defeated the No. 5 pair of Lee Sang-su and Jeon Ji-hee from Korea in the finals to secure the Mixed Finals berth at Tokyo.
Chief National Coach of India, Soumyadeep Roy also stressed in an interview with The Bridge, "We are focussing a lot on the mixed doubles. We have the best chance in it. We defeated the World No. 5 and qualified, so that's a big positive."
There are several reasons to put both our faith and our money on the combination of Manika Batra and Achanta Sharath Kamal. Both, being previous Olympians are well-aware of the high stakes at play and are expected to gel well with the pressure. The World No. 18 duo possess a unique style that proves to be effective in big matches as it helps them create confusion on the table and seize easy points.
"Manika slows down the game very well because of her style of play. I can take it up to the highest speed. So, she brings it to very low speed and from there I take it to high speed. That change in speed is what puts opponents into difficulty," said Sharath in an interview with the Hindustan Times.
Further, Manika's sensational skills with the table tennis bat and her tendency to mix it up allies perfectly well with the veteran Sharath Kamal's style and the duo can conjure up enough magic to destruct their opponents, provided it's their day to shine.
Moreover, the Mixed Doubles will have only a draw of 16 and only 3 matches need to be won before the medal chances open up. This offer is still a more realistic and feasible dream to visualize than think about the individual category events and India's eyes should be dedicatedly focussed on the Mixed Doubles hence at the Tokyo Games.