Sharath Kamal to Manika Batra, table tennis stars who spun India’s fortunes
Often relegated to the status of a recreational sport in the country, table tennis has grown in prominence over the past few years.
This change can be attributed to Indian table tennis players winning big on the international stage. It’s now no longer about Sharath Kamal waging a lone battle under the tri-colour as others too have made a name for themselves in recent years. Here are some of the best.
Undoubtedly the superstar of Indian table tennis, Manika Batra has been the cynosure over the past years. The Delhi-born player was first drawn into the sport as a four-year-old watching her elder siblings play the sport.
Manika Batra soon joined them at the table and went on to excel in the coming years. She won her first international medal as a 16-year-old in 2011, a silver in the Under-21 category at the Chile Open, and three years later made the Indian team for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Though Manika bowed out in the quarter-finals of the women’s singles event at Glasgow 2014, she showed promise.
The Indian table tennis player continued to build on her game and won three medals at the Commonwealth table tennis championships a year later, including a bronze in the women’s singles event, and headed into the 2016 Olympics on the back of a fine run.
But her debut Games didn’t go as per plan as Manika Batra was ousted in the opening round of the singles event.
The Rio 2016 disappointment, however, didn’t linger for long as Manika Batra roared back in style to dominate the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.
Gold Coast 2018 was special for the Indian table tennis player as Manika not only helped the nation pull off a massive upset over defending champions Singapore in the women’s team event, but also became the first female Indian to win the singles title at the CWG.
Manika Batra, a Khel Ratna award winner, wrapped up her Commonwealth Games campaign with a medal in every event she competed in.
At the Tokyo Olympics, Manika Batra became the first female Indian table tennis player to make the singles round of 32, beating the higher-ranked Margaryta Pesotska of Ukraine along the way.
She also made history, along with Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, by becoming the first Indian pair to win a World Table Tennis (WTT) title after the duo won the mixed doubles title at the WTT Contender Budapest in August 2021.
An active player at the international circuit for about two decades, Sharath Kamal enjoys a legendary status in Indian table tennis.
Sharath Kamal has won the national table tennis championship a record nine times, is the first Indian to win an ITTF Pro Tour title and is the first Indian to win a singles gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. He is also a four-time Olympian.
With the legendary coach Srinivas Rao as his father, it was no surprise that Sharath Kamal took up the TT racket at a very young age. The Chennai player’s first major international win came in 2004 when he won the singles competition at the Commonwealth table tennis championships in Malaysia.
Sharath Kamal rode on his brilliant form to make his Olympic debut at Athens 2004. He won his opening-round match at the Games but lost the next to Hong Kong’s Ko Lai Chak, who won the doubles silver at the Games.
However, Sharath Kamal’s biggest moment came two years later at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne when he became the first Indian to win the singles gold at CWG. The Indian star beat local favourite William Henzell of Australia in the final.
Incidentally, the Commonwealth Games has been Sharath Kamal’s favourite competition with as many as eight medals from three editions.
The Indian TT player also has two Asian Games bronze medals to his name and won his second ITTF Pro Tour title at the Oman Open just before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended the season in 2020.
In what is likely to be his Olympic swansong, Sharath Kamal also pushed eventual champion Ma Long of China all the way before falling in five games in the men’s singles round of 32 at Tokyo 2020.
He is among the latest names in the Indian table tennis circuit to make an impact. Along with Sharath Kamal, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran has been one to watch out for every time an international table tennis competition rolls out.
However, Sathiyan’s foray into professional TT was more out of chance than choice. Growing up in a conservative Tamil household, sports was never a career option. Though the Chennai local would play TT frequently, it was never a serious affair.
But this changed when he met his coach Subramaniam Raman, a former national level player, who was convinced of his ward’s talent and persuaded the youngster to give the game a go.
With titles in the junior circuit, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran climbed up the ladder in due time and clinched his maiden ITTF Pro Tour crown in 2016 at the Belgium Open. A year later, he teamed up with Sharath Kamal to win a bronze at an ITTF Major in Sweden and followed that up with a silver medal in Bulgaria a few months later.
But Indian’s career-defining moment came in 2018 when he helped India to a team title in the men’s event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games while also adding the Asian Games bronze to his kitty that year.
An Arjuna awardee, G Sathiyan is also a regular in a number of leagues in Europe and Asia.
G Sathiyan made his Olympics debut at Tokyo 2020, where he was on course for a maiden victory before eventually falling in seven games to Hong Kong’s Lam Siu Hang in the second round.
He soon put that disappointment behind him, as Sathiyan won the WTT Contender Budapest mixed doubles title with Manika Batra and followed it up with the ITTF Czech International Open title a week later.
The old workhorse of Indian table tennis, Mouma Das has been one of the consistent performers for the national team.
The two-time Olympian from Kolkata, West Bengal has been a regular fixture in the national squad over the past decade and has come up with some inspiring performances in crunch situations.
Mouma Das made her international debut at the 1997 World Table Tennis Championship. Though the Indian team failed to make the last 16 at the competition, the event was an eye-opener for a young Mouma Das.
The coming years saw the TT player from Kolkata improve and win her first Commonwealth Games medal in 2006.
An Arjuna Award winner, Mouma Das went on to add four more to her kitty from CWG, the latest coming in 2018 with Manika Batra in their historic win over Singapore.
Hailing from Rajkot, Manav Thakkar rose to fame in 2020 when he became the first Indian to claim the top spot in the world ranking in the under-21 category.
Born in a doctor’s family, both his parents are medical practitioners, Manav Thakkar took up table tennis and other sports only to stay fit.
But with time, the Indian youngster was drawn into the game and with consistent performances at the domestic level, soon found himself among the national team hopefuls.
At the national camps, it was the former Indian coach Massimo Constantini’s feedback that helped the young Indian grow in confidence.
It worked wonders for Manav Thakkar as he made the Indian team for the 2018 Asian Games and returned home with a team bronze medal from Jakarta.
Other Indian paddlers who have made an impact include Kamlesh Mehta, who was the highest ranked Indian player in the 80s, Olympians Neha Aggarwal and Ankita Das, and Anthony Amalraj and Harmeet Desai, who also found success at the Commonwealth Games.