2020 Men's Olympic Volleyball Qualifiers: 'We are looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead of us', says India's Karthik Madhu (Exclusive)
In September 2019, the Indian men's volleyball team embarked on a big mission - to finish in the top 8 of the Asian Men's Volleyball Championship that would guarantee them a spot in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics qualification tournament.
Grouped alongside China, Kazakhstan, and Oman, the Indian men started strong with a 3-2 win against Kazakhstan but were thrashed 0-3 by China. Needing a win against Oman to land a spot in the quarter-finals, the Men in Blue came up with an inspiring performance to win 3-1, and in the process celebrated their confirmed spot in the top 8.
However, they did lose to Australia and Iran in the quarter-finals, but the bigger focus was on the experience and match practice that the Indian squad gained from the global event.
This confidence and experience was on display in December's South Asian Games, as India made a thrilling comeback from one set down to clinch a 3-1 win over Pakistan in the final and clinch a gold medal.
Post that win, Indian coach G.E Sridharan was quick to analyse the win but specifically laid emphasis on the importance of his wards maintaining composure and a positive attitude when they face off against seven other nations for a ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Come January 7th 2020, the Indian team will contest in arguably their most important global tournament of the year as they will look to overcome stiff challenges from formidable opponents such as Iran, Australia, China among other sides for the top spot from the 2020 Men's qualification event in China.
Eight countries, namely Iran, Chinese Taipei, Qatar, Kazakhstan, Australia, Korea, India apart from hosts China will battle in the qualifiers, with only the winner of the event earning a spot in the upcoming Olympics event.
India find themselves in Group B alongside Australia, Korea and Qatar and will need to pull off some top performances to work out a rather onerous task of claiming the top honours.
Sportskeeda caught up with Indian superstar Karthik Madhu, who played a vital role for the Calicut Heroes in the inaugural Pro Volleyball League (PVL) season and will represent India in the upcoming event.
In an exclusive chat, Karthik speaks about India's chances at the event, the roadblocks for the side and the positive influence of the Pro Volleyball League on the Indian volleyball circuit.
Q. What was the train of thought ahead of the Asian Championships and how will those strategies play out in arguably Indian volleyball's biggest challenge this year?
From the past few years, the Indian team has not managed to do well in global tournaments due to a few issues, fitness-related and otherwise. The focus during the Asian Championships was to land a spot in the qualifiers, which was to basically qualify for the quarter-finals of the competition.
We managed to finish second in our group and reach the top 8, which was a big boost for us. Post the tournament we have played some practice matches in Qatar, and having played both Australia and Qatar (grouped alongside India in Group B for the qualifiers), we have a slight idea of the possible strategies they may employ, and we will look to counter their challenge.
Q. The Indian team's style of play when compared to that of Iran, Australia or even China is quite different. What is your analysis of the distinct styles and fitness levels?
The fitness levels are quite different. European countries are assigned specific fitness coaches and they have camps throughout the year. Here in India, we have specific camps for three to four months, and the rest of the time we need to take care of our fitness and health.
In terms of skill, I feel that we are slightly ahead since we have no dearth of talent in the country. We've got a good mix of strength and speed, a key feature that defines a strong volleyball team.
Q. The whole squad travelling to China comprises of players who are fresh off good stints from the Senior National Championships. How much of this form will help the team in the qualifiers?
Playing for the state team is completely different from representing the nation. For the state team, individual performances matter but in the global events, all the contributions must be stitched together to bring about a positive result.
We have had some lengthy camps and we've understood the overall strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that we can work on as a team. I feel this could keep us in good stead right through the tournament.
Q. The biggest challenge will be to seal the top spot. Do you already feel the burden of pressure?
I agree that it will be hard, but it isn't impossible. Yes, the top team will be qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and there is a gulf of difference in playing Asian teams versus European teams.
We haven't made any plans upfront, the idea is to go with a flow. Planning ahead for a match is necessary, and executing the plans is even more important. But the goal is to make sure we win every game, and the end result will automatically be in our favour.
Q. There are quite a few strong teams taking part in the competition. Any particular team or a few teams which might pose the biggest challenge?
The Iran team is very strong. As a unit, they have played the World League and also have experience from their participation in the 2016 Rio Olympics. We are in Group B along with three strong teams, but I feel the match against South Korea could be the toughest game for us.
Q. Who are some of the key players in your squad?
I wouldn't do justice to the quality in the squad if I name just a few players. The Pro Volleyball League brought to light some of the most exciting players in our country and all the players in our squad this time were key players for their respective PVL teams. They are raring to go and bring their best on to the court.
Q. Speaking about the Pro Volleyball League, how much of an influence has it had on Indian volleyball?
The PVL has had quite a big impact on players in the country and a lot of concentration for most players post the PVL has been on improving fitness levels, which has been a big plus overall.
Every player understands the importance of fitness and attends individual fitness sessions. The boost in fitness has certainly improved the overall skill, which has brought about results on the court.
To delve a little deeper into this subject, before the launch of the PVL, most players were content about playing just at the state level. But now they realise that the PVL demands a lot more and with the league also bringing about name, fame and financial security, players across the country are putting in extra efforts to hone their skill and earn a spot in the league.
We from Sportskeeda wish Karthik and the Indian team the best of luck for the 2020 Olympic Men's Volleyball qualification tournament.Published 06 Jan 2020, 12:57 IST