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Vol. XXXIII No. 15, November 16-30, 2023

TT in TN: A  precarious state of affairs 

-- by V. Venkataramana

Dronacharya Srinivasa Rao is a National level Table Tennis coach whose academy –  set up decades ago at the Nehru Stadium complex in Chennai – has been producing State as well as National level talent in the sport. That India’s paddlers have been undergoing a transformation in skill is a fact, going by the performance of our top-ranked paddlers, at least at the Asian level. Time was when such probability was rather low, despite the fact that the sport has a rooted tradition in the country with the states of Maharashtra, Bengal, and Tamil Nadu at the forefront.

Burgeoning talent over the years has kept the sport thriving, such as Gautam Dewan, Jagannath (TN), V. Chandrasekhar (TN; he would have risen to greater heights but for a medical mishap in the early ‘80s), Olympian S. Raman (TN) and Kamlesh Mehta, once India’s highest ranked paddler on the world stage. A few of these players continued to work for the development of the sport after their heyday, setting up academies and producing fresh talent for India. This practice has played a major role in establishing knowledgeable coaches in the field.

Bengal and Tamil Nadu are currently leading the nation in ‘ping pong’ development, reckons Mr. Srinivasa Rao in an interview for Madras Musings. “What began decades ago as just a recreational activity and part of one’s physical fitness regimen [sic], has now blossomed into a sport of skill,” he explains.

Srinivasa Rao, also the father of India’s top paddler Sharath Kamal, is concerned about what he terms ‘slowing development’ in Tamil Nadu, especially at the district level. “The fact remains that even in India, TT has been a popular sport in our schools, colleges, and even offices with one or two tables serving the purpose. Professionally, it was not popular for many years. The lack of infrastructure and other facilities such as a sufficient number of tables, good lighting, and wooden or synthetic courts has been the basic problem for interested youth to progress from the skill of just keeping the ball in play, as it were. But with a gradual spurt in the development of the sport, even a few Asian nations like China, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, spilled over to India and increased Indian players’ participation in international matches significantly. Tamil Nadu too has produced good players from time to time.”

He continued, “The real revolution came when former national champion Chetan P. Baboor stayed in Sweden for more than 6 years and played leagues over there. This club culture has enhanced the general standard of our paddlers also. It was further fillip when Baboor defeated a then world champion Lee Guling of China at the Qatar Open Ranking tournament.

This trend was kept alive by another national champion, Achanta Sharath Kamal, my son. He trained in Sweden for 2 years, Spain for 5 years and Germany for the past 8 years. He has became the first Indian ever to rise to world ranking 31. Now many Indian players are playing leagues across the world, and are exposed to taking on global talent. Our players have started winning against much higher world rankers; those like Satyan, Harmeeth Desai, and Amalraj worked their way up to be among the top 100 players in the world. Many other talented Indian players are also in the world ranking list,” explained Rao, adding, “Another impetus to this development was India winning 2 bronze medals in the Asiad at Indonesia a few years ago. This win has come 60 years after table tennis first came India.” This is happily the case with the country’s TT sports women as well. Led by Manika Batra, they have also attained good world rankings and have been rising to performing on the global stage. 

The scenario has changed a lot. The Government of India as well as State Governments are encouraging the sport by providing good facilities and financial support. “In addition, the Government of India and the State Governments have also been encouraging players through cash incentives for winning medals in international events,” said Rao. But he is worried. Tamil Nadu is doing well within Indian TT, but fresh talent showing promise in the global arena has not been showing up. Matters are worse in the women’s section. “Only Shyamini has been in the spotlight in the sub junior, junior and now senior levels,” he pointed out. According to Mr Rao the next line up of prospective national talent for Tamil Nadu could be Priyesh, Abhinand and Bala Murugan, who have been playing well since the sub junior and junior level.

A compelling reason for the dull scenario in the ­women’s section is the affordability of the sport, due to rising cost of infrastructure such as tables, racquets and other necessary equipment. This is in spite of the availability of facilities such as sponsorship and State government support, at least in Chennai city. There is also the problem of parents not ­encouraging their daughters to pursue a full career as a player.

The situation is worse in the (TN) Districts, as Rao puts it. A strong reason is less support from the state government especially for increasing infrastructure equally in all districts, although TT is a popular sporting activity there. Besides, the number of competitive tournaments are greater in Chennai city vis a vis the Districts. “Presently, the sport is thriving only in a few Districts like Madurai, Erode, Coimbatore and Salem, thanks to the presence of more clubs and coaches” said a worried Rao. “Youngsters in the ­Districts who have the basic talent in TT don’t know what to do to further their skill.” 

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