Sharath Kamal in action (Source: Twitter/@airnewsalerts)
In the last few years, the Indian men’s table tennis team has reached previously unknown highs. Individually, the top 20 barrier has been broken, currently three players are in the top 100 with more looking to breach the mark, and there’s even a youngster rated the U-21 world no 1 in the mix.
But as a team, the success has been even more impressive. A gold in the team event at the Commonwealth Games was followed by a top 15 finish at the World Team Championships — the first time in 30 years. Then came the defeat of the mighty Japanese that earned the team its first ever Asian Games medal — a bronze at the 2018 edition. Naturally, there was hope and expectation that they would continue the run. No longer were they underdogs, rather, they’d become one of the bigger teams on the circuit.
But the team Olympic qualification event in Portugal this week — a one-off event that handed out nine quotas to worthy teams — came with a pressure of a different kind. The Indians, seeded fifth, had to pull off two successive wins and earn the quota to become the first ever table tennis team from the country to qualify for the Olympic Games.
Great expectations, coupled with the relatively new tag of being a favourite, led to the fall. They lost 3-2 to lower-ranked Slovenia, taking the Indians into the second round of the tournament. Here they needed to win three matches to earn the quota. Late on Saturday night though, they lost 3-1 in the match against the Czech Republic, bringing an end to the Olympic dream.
Olympic dream ends
“This is the first time there’s been a tournament like this where there is direct qualification for teams, and this was also the last chance to make the cut. I have been playing at big events in the last few years, but this was a different kind of pressure,” says world no 30 and India’s highest ranked singles player G Sathiyan. “This was a great chance and we had big expectations of making the cut in the team events. It was unfortunate that we didn’t make it. The entire team is upset.”
In their first match last week, the team, as expected, registered a comfortable 3-0 win over Luxembourg in the best-of-five rubber per tie format. Against Slovenia though, they faltered. The format of the tournament was such that the eight teams that lost in the second round went into another stage of the competition. There, they would play in a knockout format where the winner of the eight-team event would earn the last Olympic spot. The first match for the Indians was against the lower ranked Czechs.
On paper, this should have gone in favour of the team from the subcontinent. The Indian lineup included Sathiyan, world no 33 Achanta Sharath Kamal and Harmeet Desai (86), while the Czech Republic team included Pavel Sirucek (45), Lubomir Jancarik (89) and Tomas Polansky (166). But it was the East European team that pulled off the 3-1 win.
“We have to give credit to the opposition, but we also lost a lot of close games (which were won by a difference of two points),” Sathiyan says. “I was in a lot of deuce sets and couldn’t convert, so that really made the difference. We did our best when we were out there on court, but things did not go according to plan. Some of the (shot) decisions did not go well.” In the tie against the Czech Republic, 10 of the 16 games were ended with a two-point difference – Sathiyan played in seven of those.
The wait for an Indian team to qualify for the team event of the Olympics continues with the men’s team’s defeat – the women had lost at the same stage of the competition hours earlier. “The fact that everyone has been expecting so much from us speaks volumes of the results we’ve had in the last couple of years. There’s a big difference between playing as a favourite and as an underdog,” Sathiyan adds.
“The higher you get, the more often you play as favourites and it’s not going to be easy that you’re no 1 and you’re expected to win everything. There will be times when you are in good shape and you’re expecting a lot and still you don’t get the wins. That’s the struggle. So we have to learn from this.”