Growing up in Chennai means growing up with table tennis. The sport has a rich heritage in the city and the state of Tamil Nadu has produced national champions aplenty.
For Indian table tennis star Anthony Amalraj, the journey began at home.
His father, Arputharaj was a competitive player at the state level and he took his son with him to tournaments ever since he was two years old. The Chennai lad dabbled in numerous sports in his childhood, but it was not a tough choice when it came down to which one he wanted to specialize in.
“The circumstances were just perfect for me. My father had a lot of knowledge about table tennis and there was the Don Bosco club near my house which allowed me to practice in proximity,” Anthony Amalraj explained in an exclusive chat with the Olympic Channel.
One of his other favourite memories is also the Sundays he spent practising with his father, though it meant the latter had to go into office even on his days off.
“My father’s office had a TT table, so it allowed me to have a personal practice session with him every Sunday,” stated the Indian table tennis player.
“We would go there after breakfast to play, come home for a lunch break and then go back. It was inevitable that I’d end up playing table tennis professionally.”
Arputharaj may have had to give it up because he had a family to support, but he had hooked his son into the sport.
The turning point
Anthony Amalraj enrolled at a renowned academy in Rajasthan at the age of 10 and was impressive at the junior level, making it to the finals of both the U-12 and U-14 national championships, but was not able to win the title.
The story was the same for him at the senior tournament as well – the Indian table tennis player would comfortably reach the semi-finals in 2005 before coming up short against Achanta Sharath Kamal.
It was the same script for the next few years, and though Anthony Amalraj won bronze in the men’s team event at the 2010 Commonwealth Games with the Indian table tennis legend, getting past him in the nationals proved too arduous a task.
However, that changed in 2012 when he finally beat Achanta Sharath Kamal to win the senior national championship, a dream he had been harbouring for 15 years and identifies it as the turning point in his career.
“Look, you make a name for yourself only when you win a big tournament,” admitted Anthony Amalraj. “It is only then that people start trusting you to deliver when it matters.
“Until then, people only knew me as a challenger but that national title changed perceptions. It was very important for me.”
The title in February 2012 was the culmination of a six-month period of great success for Anthony Amalraj, who had reigned supreme in the zonal tournaments and incidentally, had also beaten Sharath Kamal to win a corporate event in the interim.
However, the beginning of that successful period can be traced back to a life-changing decision the Indian table tennis player made a year before the title.
Tackling the mind
In March 2011, just after the Indian table tennis season had ended, Anthony Amalraj was not at his mental best.
The 34-year-old believes he is not naturally talented and so, worked extra hard to be able to play at the top.
“I had my technique and tactics sorted out, had a good coach and was probably only second to Sharath Kamal in the country. Yet, I was not able to reach the level I wanted to,” admitted the Indian table tennis star.
It was then that he decided to approach renowned mental health professional, Dr TK Vadivel Pillai, who suggested that he try hypnotherapy, a method that helped an athlete train his subconscious mind.
“I worked with him for five months - from March to August 2011 - and his training made me fearless at the table,” revealed Anthony Amalraj.
For a person who would constantly look at the scoreboard and wilt under the pressure at times, the hypnotherapy sessions helped him develop a mechanism that would allow him to focus on the next point, a process he was aided in by coach Subramanian Raman.
“The knockouts were a bogey for me before that, even if I faced a player I had beaten in the pre-quarters or earlier, I would fall to them in the semi-finals,” he said.
“But it is not a process that may necessarily work with everyone. Different players have different needs – my family made me mentally strong, so I only needed a new mindset at the table, which hypnotherapy helped me with.”
The next step
Anthony Amalraj has since had a lot of success, winning national titles, medals at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and various Pro Tour events across the globe.
The one thing he has not ticked off his bucket list yet is playing at the biggest stage of them all – the Olympics.
He is currently ranked 100th by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and will have to perform extremely well once the season resumes to possibly make it to the Tokyo Olympics next year.
And Anthony Amalraj is raring to go. “I have worked really hard in life to achieve all that I have won in my career,” he emphasized.
“The important thing right now for me is to work equally hard, maybe even push myself harder to play at the Olympics and it remains my hope that I get there someday,” the Indian table tennis star signed off.