Why table tennis players often overlook taking part in national camps?
With debates raging over the attendance of national camps, Ayhika Mukherjee relays the pros and cons ahead of the Asian Table Tennis Championships.
Table tennis in India may have seen an upward growth in its curve, but in its efforts to take the graph higher, it has also landed itself in messy territories, with star players like Manika Batra being at loggerheads with the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI). Rife with controversies and ugly court battles, table tennis in India has been making headlines for not the most desirable reasons as the Federation's interests and those of the player's are clashing, creating room for confusion.
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After the conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics, India's first biggest challenge will lie at the 2021 Asian Table Tennis Championships in Doha, which is set to begin from 28th September and conclude on 5th October, 2021. With 7 categories up for participation - Men's and Women's Team, Doubles and Individuals and Mixed Doubles, the Asian Table Tennis Championships will act as qualifiers for the 2022 World Team Championships in China. The Indian contingent will have seasoned paddlers Sharath Kamal (World No. 33) and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran (World No. 38) to helm the men's side while Tokyo-returned Sutirtha Mukherjee (World No. 95) will lead the women's half, comprising a talented bunch of paddlers like Ayhika Mukherjee, Archana Kamath and Sreeja Akula.
In the immediate context of the biennial tournament, Indian table tennis saw a lot of drama unfurling as the TTFI left 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Manika Batra out of the squad curated for the Doha event. Batra, who became the first Indian table tennis player to reach the third round of an Olympics was not included in the contingent as she did not attend the National Camp organised in Sonepat prior to the Asian Table Tennis Championships. The TTFI, in a rule stated that it is mandatory for players to attend the National Camp to find themselves eligible for selection to the squad - a rule that immediately got taken up Batra and filed a petition against as she did not understand the 'mandatory' nature of it. The Delhi High Court also sided with Batra for the interim period and stayed the rule of the TTFI - however, Batra was still left off the squad.
Manika Batra's absence will create a gap?
Having set base in Doha temporarily for the Asian Championships, 2019 Commonwealth Championships gold medallist, Ayhika Mukherjee engaged in a candid conversation with The Bridge, reflecting on recent events in Indian table tennis and looking forward to the tournament. Placed in Group I, the women's team have Nepal and Jordan in their mix and are ready to put their best foot forward as they begin proceedings. The only glaring miss from the team will be the absence of Manika Batra and Ayhika confessed, "Manika didi is not playing this time...I personally think there will be a gap without Manika Didi but I also believe my other team members are playing great so we will try our best to fill the gap," she mentioned reassuringly.
As for her other teammates, Archana Kamath and Sreeja Akula gained a lot of momentum playing at the WTT Star Contender in Doha where the former made it till the quarters and the latter to the pre-quarters, each causing major upsets by defeating higher-ranked players. Moreover, with China not in the mix, Indian table tennis players have a reason to breathe easy. "This is a good opportunity for us .. though there are many more good teams like Korea, Hong Kong, Japan...we will try to make it count and we will give our 100% and we will fight every point till the end," Mukherjee conveyed.
National Camps - yay or nay?
With Batra not on the squad for the Championships primarily owing to the TTFI's rule about attending National Camps compulsorily - the question that easily arises is, how important is this attendance? Ayhika, who has been frequenting National Camps ever since her junior days doesn't shy away from giving the real picture and reasons why certain players choose to overlook National Camps. Admitting the boon of it first, Ayhika mentions, "Attending National Camps is good for everybody as it helps in the bondings between the team members.. I'm doing camps since I was playing in Under-15 (Sub junior girls)...and in under many coaches..I learnt many things from the camps," Mukherjee does confess.
But this isn't the whole picture. Table tennis is a sport that depends heavily on the racquet one uses, players have their patent bats, train with rubbers specific to their style which makes it difficult in National Camps to spar with just about any other player. Ayhika, who possesses a very unique rubber, that is only used by a countable few and one that made the legendary Ding Ning sweat it out at the 2019 Asian Championships, where Mukherjee gave a solid fight to the defending Olympic champion.
Ayhika reveals one of the key factors and says, "Sometimes players like us who don't have normal racquets like the others faces some problems to practice with others .. so sometimes it's better to play with our personal sparring and personal coach for our own good...," she mentions. "Like I have short pimple on forehand and anti type on the backhand...it's very difficult to practice with players like us...that's why I play more multiballs in my academy and in camps as well," Mukherjee highlights.
As far as sparring therefore is concerned, other players are reluctant to play against those with different rubbers as it might hamper their own game, given the difference of rubbers. However, camps are mostly crucial for building team bonds more than anything, Ayhika feels, something that is very necessary before any major tournament, to get into the mood and zone. Batra, also uses the long pimple rubber on her backhand, as does Archana Kamath and the results with it have been for the world to see. Meanwhile, Sutirtha uses the short pip on her forehand as does Ayhika and Sreeja Akula uses a plain soft rubber on both sides. This leaves players, especially those who are seasoned, toying with the option of attending and not attending the camp and putting in more time for individual practice, which happens to be one of the key reasons behind players dilly-dallying in this matter.