'The Indian table tennis team is full of variety,' says Indian paddler Harmeet Desai [Exclusive]
Table Tennis in India has been on the rise over the last few years. Historically, the Indian team has never been a force to reckon with at the world stage, but with the advent of Ultimate Table Tennis League and exposure of training in world-class centres abroad, the Indian players have had multiple opportunities to hone their skills.
Harmeet Desai, who is currently ranked 90th in the world, is one of the Indian paddlers at the forefront of this growth. The youngster has been clinical in team India's stellar performances at various events like the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Team Championships.
Individually too, he has won many accolades at the national and international level. In 2019, he won the Commonwealth Championships men's singles event by beating India's No.1 and World Rank 30, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran in the finals.
At the recently concluded 81st National Table Tennis Championships, Harmeet was crowned national champion for the first time in his career. His efforts were recognized by the Indian government when he was nominated for the Arjuna Award in 2019. However, at the team qualifiers in the leadup to the Tokyo Olympics 2020, he had a major setback when he could not see India through to the elusive team berth at the Olympics.
With Harmeet currently taking part in the Inter Unit PSPB tournament in Delhi, Sportskeeda caught up with the youngster in an exclusive chat he spoke about a wide array of topics such as his memorable win against Sathiyan Gnanasekaran at the Commonwealth Championship, the improvements India will need to make to match the likes of China, Germany and a lot more.
Q. How does it feel to be a national champion for the first time?
It feels great. It is difficult to describe this feeling. It has been a childhood dream and it has not sunk in yet. The journey was very tough. I was not a favourite to win the title and to win it was a challenging task. I am very happy that I could win this title.
Q. It was a hard-fought win in the finals against Manav (Thakkar) who against everyone’s expectation had beaten India’s No.1 Sathiyan (Gnanasekaran) in the semifinals. Were you surprised by that result? Did it change anything for you?
Indeed yes, it was a seven setter but I had chances to finish it off earlier. In the second set, I squandered two game points. In the 4th set, I was leading 9-5 but he came back to win that set 11-9. He was playing well.
Also, I was not surprised with his win against Sathiyan because Manav is a very dangerous player. He had nothing to lose situation against Sathiyan. Also, I feel it is a time when any player can beat any other player on a given day.
The top 8 (Indian) players are really good. Also, (Soumyajit) Ghosh beat (Sharath) Kamal in the quarter-finals. So, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. Even I was struggling from the 3rd round of the tournament. It is a national tournament and everyone wants to win. The competition right now is very tough and (thus) it is the best time for Indian table tennis.
Q. How many hours do you train in a day? What is your training routine?
Normally I practice in Germany, in a town called Ochsenhausen. There (The centre where he practices) most of the top-ranked players of the world practice, including Hugo Caldarano (of Brazil) and Simon Gauzy (France) to name a few. I’ve been practising there for two years now and it has really helped me.
I practice around 5-6 hours daily along with 1-2 hours of physical training. The day starts at around 9 in the morning and the practice session lasts till noon. Then after some physical training, we come back for the afternoon practice session which starts at around 4 pm and ends at around 6 in the evening. After that, we have 1 more hour for physical training. This training stint in Germany has helped me a lot. My graph has gone up. I feel really good as a player and I’ve become much calmer.
Q. Which player from the Indian camp brings the best game out of you?
It is difficult to pick one. Every player is difficult to play against because we know each other really well. We have been playing against each other in all the training camps for pro-tours, world championships. We have been travelling together. We have been watching each other’s matches, cheering for each other.
So, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In this season, I won three titles- The Commonwealth Championships where I won a very tough match against Sathiyan, the Indonesian Open, where I won against (Anthony) Amalraj and at the National Championships against Manav. So, it will be very difficult to pick and choose one. I try to focus on my game and last 6-8 months have been very good for me.
Q. Who is your current favourite player on the world circuit?
I like Ma Long, the dictator.
Q. 2018 was arguably one of the best years for Indian table tennis. India finished on the pole position of medal tally at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and at the Asian Games, India won team bronze medal beating Japan. How did it make you a better player?
Yes, 2018 was a very important year for me because we had prepared a lot for the Commonwealth and Asian Games. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, I was not able to win a medal. I had squandered three match point opportunities against (Liam) Pitchford of England in the semifinals in 2014. But, at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, I was very determined to do well. We won a Gold medal in the men's team event and along with that, I won a Bronze medal in the men’s doubles event.
Also, at the World Team Championships in 2018, we finished 13th, which is our best finish at these championships. We also beat France in the World Championships. They were ranked 4th at that time in the world. All these achievements helped Indian players to get more respect in the international circuit. People started recognizing the potential of Indian players. They started inviting us to train in their training centres. The place where I train is one of the best facility in the world and only 16 players from all over the world are selected every year to train there. I got an opportunity to train there after the Commonwealth and World Championships. Like this, many other centres opened the doors for other Indian players after our performances in 2018.
Q. How has the UTT (Ultimate Table Tennis) helped Indian TT players?
Because of UTT, Indian players got that belief that they can beat international players. We had the level before that as well but we could not somehow overcome the mental barrier of beating them at the big stage. With the advent of UTT, we started to believe in ourselves. Also, the performance of the women’s team has improved a lot. Due to UTT, a lot of opportunities have opened up for Indian players around the world.
Q. 2019 was a brilliant year for you. You got the better of Sathiyan at the Commonwealth championships in the finals to win Gold. You got a certificate of recognition from the Indian government as well with you being conferred with the Arjuna Award. Has it been the best year for you in your professional career?
Harmeet: Yes, definitely, it has been one of the best years of my career. If someone had asked me at the start of 2019 if I can win Commonwealth Championships or Indonesian Open, I would have said no. Also, getting (conferred with) Arjuna Award after Commonwealth Championships was a real icing on the cake. Indeed, 2019 was a special year for me.
Q. Everyone was expecting India to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in the team’s event. What do you think went wrong in the qualification event?
(Sighs) I think we have been doing quite well in the recent past (like 2 or 3 years). At the qualifying tournament, we were expected to win against teams like Slovenia and the Czech Republic. We started well against Slovenia. But after that, Jorgic Darko played very well against Sathiyan and Sharath. Also, I had a big chance when I was leading 2-1 against Tokic Bojan and I could have turned around the things.
But these things happen in sports. All the teams have started to take us seriously. It is a new area for us and we need to learn from the mistakes. Also, in the team event where three players are representing (the team), all the three need to be on top of their game on that particular day but that was not to be. We tried our best but unfortunately, it was not our day.
Q. With the Asian qualification tournament for the Olympics around the corner, how is your preparation?
For the Asian Qualification tournament, only two entries per nation are allowed and as Sathiyan and Sharath are higher-ranked players, so they will be representing India at the qualifiers. This was decided by the TTFI before the National Championships. So, I don’t think I will get the chance to represent India at the qualifiers. The same suit will be followed for the mixed doubles qualifiers as well, where Sharath and Manika should represent India at the qualifying event.
Q. For the doubles event in table tennis, the left-hand right-hand combination is highly recommended. In India, we don’t have a lot of left-handed players. Your take?
Yes, it is important. We have Sanil (Shetty) who plays left-handed but he is usually in and out of the team. When I won the Commonwealth Games bronze medal in the men’s doubles event, he was my partner in that, so it made my life much easier.
Q. Do you think India can match the likes of China, Japan, and Germany in the coming years?
Yes, it is possible but it is still a long way to go. We have made giant steps to reach world rank number 8 as a team but from here to reach the top 4 in the world, the journey gets very tough. In countries like China, Japan and Germany, they have a very good system for table tennis. In India, we need more table tennis players and good quality coaches, which we don’t have right now. We also need to have many more training centres as well.
I believe that Indian players are the most talented as well. We have a lot of variety in our game. If we have five players in a team, then all of them have their unique style of play that other countries don’t have. We need to have a good system in India for table tennis as we have for cricket to reach the top 4 in the world.Published 07 Feb 2020, 02:08 IST