Table tennis in India is on the rise, and 26-year-old Harmeet Desai of Gujarat is one of the big reasons why.
Currently ranked third in the country, he will be a key player for India at the upcoming World Team Qualification (men and women) tournament, to be held in Gondomar, Portugal.
Joining compatriots Sharath Achanta Kamal, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Anthony Amalraj, Desai and the contingent will have India’s last chance to seal an Olympics berth. And with as many as nine spots up for grabs in Portugal, it could make for an historic debut for the Indian table tennis team at the Olympic Games.
The paddler from Surat first rose to limelight with his performances at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2019 Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship. But his table tennis journey had begun much earlier. He had begun playing with his father when he was just six, and was soon put under the tutelage of renowned coach and five-time world champion Peter Karlsson as part of the Olympic Solidarity Programme, where he further honed his skills.
While his talent was on show at the junior levels, the real highlight came at the 2012 Brazil Open where Desai lifted the U-21 title, becoming only the second Indian table tennis player to achieve the feat after veteran Sharath Kamal.
The boy who had won bronze with the Indian contingent at the 2011 Asian Junior Table Tennis Championship in Bangkok was now turning heads, and more importantly, knocking on the senior team’s door.
Three years later in Goa, Desai would go on to cement his place among established players. At the 2014 Lusophony Games, he clinched an individual gold medal before becoming the first Indian to reach the Qatar Open World Tour platinum series final.
A meteoric rise in 2019
A big chapter of India’s table tennis story unfolded in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where the contingent went on to win eight medals in the men’s, women’s and the mixed team event – including three golds. Desai was part of the men’s team that defeated Nigeria 3-0 in the final to clinch the elusive yellow metal.
The feat at the Gold Coast was followed by another bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games where Desai was a part of the three-pronged men’s team alongside Achanta Kamal and G Sathiyan.
Desai’s elevated abilities, which by then had a physical element and consistency blended, became more pronounced next year at the 21st Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships 2019.
The paddler was at his intensive best in the tournament where he defeated Sathiyan Gnanasekaran 4-3 (9-11 6-11 11-5 11-8 17-15 7-11 11-9) in a hard-fought final. His comeback, after going two games down early on in the seven-game marathon, established him as one of best paddlers.
The year also saw Desai being named among 19 Indian sportspersons for the prestigious Arjuna Award. "It was my childhood dream to receive the Arjuna Award and it is coming true today. I'm happy that my years of hard work is getting recognised. These kinds of awards help players to do better for the country," he had said in an interview with TOI.
Climbing the ranks
In 2017, when Desai entered the top-100 in the world after the Asian Table Tennis Championships in Wuxi (China), he became the third Indian to do so after Sharath Kamal Achanta and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran.
But that was followed by an underwhelming season that saw Desai slip down gradually and fall out of the top 100. It wasn’t until the fulfilling 2019 season that he rose again. December 2019’s ITTF rankings saw India move up to its best-ever eighth rank in the world, with Desai climbing 19 places to sit 85th after his Indonesia Open championship feat.
“...In order to stay focused, I avoided looking at the rankings. This also helped me in keeping any kind of negative energy and undue stress at bay. Moreover, I got enough time to keep on improving my game and stay motivated,” Harmeet Desai had said in an interview with the official website of Gujarat State Table Tennis Association.
“You may not believe it but I had stopped thinking about my rankings and analysing about it. I also stopped looking at the world ranking on the ITTF page,” he added.
Eye on the prize
India has never been able to send a table tennis team contingent to the Olympics before, and with the squad now in ship shape, the Olympics qualifiers couldn’t have come at a better time.
Desai is more than hopeful of having a good campaign in Portugal, where India is seeded fourth. “The team is in a really good mood and we are very optimistic about making it to the Olympics for the very first time. We will be up against tough opposition. We just hope that our players on that day deliver and that luck is on our side,” Desai said after a week-long training camp organised by Sharath Kamal in Chennai at the end of December.
Now comes the time to see if history can be made: Olympic qualification will be decided in Gondomar as the event gets underway on January 22nd.