Indian table tennis: Coming of age and holding promise for the future

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran broke into the top 25 rankings this year, while youngster Manav Thakkar made his mark. 

By Saurabh Shankar ·

A maiden World Cup appearance for one of their own, a steady rise up the rankings and promise for the future - that’s been India’s table tennis season in a nutshell. 

It has been a fruitful year for the sport in India, as their main athletes achieved feats of historic proportions, with many promising youngsters joining the fray. Here’s a look at how the likes of Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Manika Batra and Sharath Kamal Achanta and many more have performed in the last 12 months.

Sathiyan’s season to remember

26-year-old Sathiyan Gnanasekaran has been the flagbearer for Indian table tennis this past season, taking on the mantle from veteran paddler Sharath Kamal Achanta. 

He started his season with a spirited showing at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Oman Open, claiming the bronze medal, beating the likes of Anthony Amalraj and Emmanuel Lebesson of France in that tournament. Unfortunately, Sathiyan could not keep that momentum going at the Qatar Open, as he failed to make it to the main draw.

A few months later, the paddler from Chennai was back to his best at the World Tour Platinum Australian Open. Sathiyan could not make the main draw in the singles category, but he lit up the competition in the men’s doubles category, pairing up with Anthony Amalraj. The Indian duo reached the semifinals of the competition and were ultimately foiled by Lee Sang-su and Jeoung Young-sik, who went on to win that tournament.

Sathiyan also created history at the 2019 Asian Table Tennis Championships, as he became the first Indian to reach the quarterfinals of that competition in 43 years. While the other Indian paddlers like Amalraj, Harmeet Desai and Manav Thakkar failed to make it past the round of 32, dropping just a solitary game till the quarterfinals. He was eventually foiled by then fourth-ranked paddler Lin Gaoyuan, but that stellar performance made the table tennis fraternity sit up and take notice.

The 26-year-old capped off the year by making it to the main draw of the ITTF men’s World Cup in late November on his very first try. He beat the likes of Simon Gauzy of France and Jonathan Groth of Denmark to realise a lifelong dream of facing German legend Timo Boll in the knockout stages of the competition.

Sathiyan lost that tie 1-4, but nonetheless augmented his stature in table tennis, as he became the first Indian to break into the top 25 rankings for table tennis. 

Lukewarm Manika Batra

At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, India’s Manika Batra was the talk of the town as she became the first female paddler of the country to win a gold medal at that tournament. The 24-year-old table tennis star from Delhi, however, has been unable to replicate that form in 2019, as her season has been defined by a slew of early eliminations. 

Batra was eliminated in the round of 32 stage at the 2019 Asian Table Tennis Championships, and didn’t fare any better in the women’s doubles category, bowing out of the competition in the same stage while partnered with Archana Kamath. The 24-year-old was also dumped out in the first elimination round of the Australian Open and failed to even make it to the main draw at the 2019 Qatar Open. 

Manika Batra also had to endure a split with her former coach Sandeep Gupta this year, after she began training at an academy in Pune, moving out of her native Delhi. She is currently ranked 61st in the world but remains India’s top-ranked female paddler, and with Tokyo 2020 still a few months away, Batra will be hoping for a change in fortunes come the new season.

 Manika Batra is first woman paddler to win singles as well as team event gold medals at the Commonwealth Games 

Promise for the future 

That last 12 months have given Indian table tennis fans plenty to be excited about for the future, as many young paddlers have come to the fore, challenging the supremacy of the east. 

19-year-old Manav Thakkar has four ITTF World Junior Circuit Boys’ Singles titles to his name and was the top-ranked U-18 paddler in the world for most of last season. Thakkar got to the round of 32 at the Asian Championships held in Yogyakarta and made it to the quarterfinals of the 2019 Polish Open, pairing up with Sanil Shetty for the men’s doubles category. 

Ayhika Mukherjee is another paddler from the country to watch out for in the coming decade. She made it to the round of 32 in the Asian Championships and also claimed a silver medal at the 2019 South Asian Games. Still only in her early twenties, the young paddler has nonchalantly made the switch to senior level and could prove to be a trailblazer for the women’s game in the years to come.

The Ultimate Table Tennis League has also paved the way forward for Indian paddlers, giving exposure to many upcoming players of the country. While it was the main stars like Sathiyan and Sharath Kamal who grabbed the limelight in that tournament, the third season of the Ultimate Table Tennis league will also be remembered for the brilliant showings by youngsters such as Anirban Ghosh, Archana Kamath and Manush Shah. 

On the whole, it has been a year of promise for Indian table tennis, with the coming of age for star paddlers like Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, and with many more promising youngsters waiting in the wings.