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Table Tennis

Prompted by wrong news, Chetan Baboor looks back on a pathbreaking career

As media reports on Manika Batra showed, Table Tennis flag bearer from the 1990s - Chetan Baboor - has almost been erased from Indian sports history. He explains why he turned his back on the sport after leading India to a new dawn, and why it is that he might have been forgotten back home.

Prompted by wrong news, Chetan Baboor looks back on a pathbreaking career
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Chetan Baboor played for India between 1990 and 2001. Ranked 68 in the world at his best, he took Indian Table Tennis to new heights in the '90s.

By

Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 2022-11-25T18:52:56+05:30

After Manika Batra won her Asian Cup medal last week, media reports on the win sent some of India's former table tennis players into a tizzy of confusion. News agency PTI, most Indian media outlets' last resort for TT, (mis)reported that Batra was the first ever Indian to reach the last-four stage of the tournament.

Chetan Baboor, who had played the final of the Asian Cup back in 1997, received some confused messages after these reports. He sent his former doubles partner Raman Subramanyan a link to the Wikipedia page which showed he indeed had done better than Manika in 2022.

"I played the 1997 Asian Cup final in in Pune. I beat one of the Chinese, then lost to another in the final," Baboor told The Bridge as he took a walk down memory lane, prompted by the misinformation.

On why it could have been that the Indian media forgot about him - to say that Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan's 6th-place finish was the best before Manika at the Asia Cup - Baboor philosophically put it down to a 'fact of the circumstances'.

"Everybody's memory is short. Also, I've not actively looked to stay in the memories of people. If I was doing coaching, or commentary, I would have been (remembered) a little bit more. I just chose not to do that," he said.

The prevalent nature of sports media when Baboor was at his peak in the 1990s - when there was no social media to amplify achievements, no news channels analysing the feat - is another reason why he might have been forgotten. Despite his historic feat, Baboor's Asian Cup silver medal had not made him an overnight star or prepared much records for posterity.

"No (my achievement was not proportionally celebrated)," said Baboor.

"I actually faxed the scoresheet after the match to someone in AP. It got carried, but that was the extent of that. Nobody called me from India to talk about it. Those were the days when only a few events got covered extensively, everything else was a blurb in your newspaper. The 'notable section' on the side," he said.

Turning back on TT

The flag bearer of Indian table tennis in the 1990s, Baboor broke into the senior national team at age 16, representing India in three Olympics from 1992 to 2000. A four-time national champion and two-time gold medallist at the Commonwealth Championships, Baboor won the Arjuna award in 1997. He was the first Indian to play in top-tier overseas leagues, single-handedly inspiring a generation back in India.

But, Baboor had his own way of pursuing life. At the age of 27, he surprised many by quitting the sport and moved to the USA for a business degree. His life since then has revolved around health economics real world evidence epidemics in a pharmaceutical company, not top spin and twiddles on a TT table.

Despite having been a pathbreaker in a rare sport, Baboor's public profiles have no mention of TT.

"It's not been something I've consciously done (turn my back on TT), but it was just not relevant to what I was doing after that. Since I had started a very different profession, I wanted to focus on that," Baboor said about his hard spin away from the table.

After a pause, he added with a laugh, "I'm starting to think it's okay to look back… Whatever I choose to do in the future, you're going to see some more of TT."

Baboor was in Atlanta when Leander Paes won an Olympic medal in 1996, he was also in Sydney when Karnam Malleswari won an Olympic medal in 2000. He watched Paes's match from the stands, and got to touch Karnam's medal. But while their Olympic medals elevated them to legendary status, Baboor remained an unsung hero because his sport was in a much more nascent state back then than tennis or weightlifting.

"An Olympic medal is the holy grail. Leander Paes, Karnam Malleswari, Abhinav Bindra had achievements that were unparalleled across any sport, they're definitely that (legends)…I believe I was able to take TT to the next level, which set up the present generation. So I can feel a little bit of a part of their wins now," Baboor said.

Showing the way to Sharath Kamal and co.

Despite the lack of proportional appreciation, Baboor said he looks back on his playing days like most people think about their college days.

"It was the greatest. You know it's not going to last forever, but you have the best memories," he said.

He loved how TT took him around the world, he loved the heat of the competition and he loved it when he could beat some of the top players in the world.

"Liu Guoliang (in 1999) was my best win. He was the world champion that year, the reigning Olympic champion. There were not many back then who beat him, or could even think of beating him. He was like Ma Long. At the international level, they lost very few matches. Everything was perfect for me that day, I didn't miss a single shot. It got very close…but I didn't miss," Baboor recounted the highlight of his career.

There were a few more wins of this sort - "There were a lot of people watching at the Asia Cup, that made it special," he said - but Baboor said his greatest achievement would have been to show the way forward to those who came after him.

"I showed the way on how to play at the international level, get some recognition for Indian TT overseas. Sharath and Sathiyan have taken India to the next level. One Asian Cup medal is fine, but they won an Asian Games medal, which is unprecedented. It might not click for a few years, but if you look at the overall trend - my highest rank was in the 60s, they're in the 20s and 30s. The best the women got to during my time was around the top 100 mark. Manika is now in the 30s," he said.

"Some people ask me why I stopped so early in my career, but in some ways I think it has helped the next generation to come up quickly and to take us forward," he added.

One of the beneficiaries of Baboor's move away from the professional tour was a junior from his school - Achanta Sharath Kamal, who was looking to break into the Indian team. Three years later, Sharath Kamal followed Baboor's path to go play in European leagues.

Baboor said 'late bloomer' Sharath Kamal's continuing presence gives overall balance to the current team, but that the happiest part is that India now have several candidates to have a shot at the elusive Olympic medal.

"We are talking about an Olympic medal in realistic terms for the first time. The doubles teams have the best chance in Paris 2024," he said.

READ | Manika Batra starting to play her best TT now: Sathiyan

Baboor refused to compare the historical significance of his Asian Cup medal in 1997 and Manika's in 2022, but did add two reasons why both are important chapters in India's TT history.

"Manika's win is significant because it's on the women's side that the Chinese are even more dominant. To beat three top-25 players in one tournament is fantastic. Once Manika gets going, she's fearless, can take on the best," he said.

On his own win in 1997, he said: "Having such big wins on your own soil provides a lot of impetus to the young people watching and the overall following of the sport in the country."

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