India's table tennis contingent will head to Gondomar, Portugal for the 2020 ITTF World Team Qualification Tournament on January 22 — an event of crucial importance as it serves as a qualifier for the Olympic Games later in the year.
Seeded fifth, the India men's team includes Manav Thakkar, Harmeet Desai, Achanta Sharath Kamal, Anthony Amalraj and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, while the 17th-seeded women's squad comprises Manika Batra, Ayhika Mukherjee, Sutirtha Mukherjee, Madhurika Patkar and Archana Kamath.
A promising lead-up
In the years leading up to Tokyo 2020, the outlook of Indian table tennis has been looking up. The nation’s paddlers have been racking up some laudable accolades, standing out in particular are the performances at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games in 2018.
At the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, India topped the medals tally with eight medals, including three golds. On the heels of that success, India secured its maiden Asian Games medals in table tennis a few months later, with the men's team of Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Sharath Kamal and Anthony Amalraj, as well as the mixed doubles duo of Manika Batra and Sharath Kamal, bagging bronze.
Last year, the Indian players reached more milestones, achieving feats of historic proportions, with many promising youngsters joining the fray.
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran took on the mantle from veteran paddler Sharath Kamal. After claiming the bronze medal at the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Oman Open, he also went on to create history at the 2019 Asian Table Tennis Championships by becoming the first Indian to reach the quarterfinals of that competition in 43 years.
Sathiyan, 26, capped off the year by making it to the main draw of the ITTF Men’s World Cup late November in his first attempt.
Also shining the light toward Indian table tennis’ future, rising star Manav Thakkar shot to number one in the Under-21 men's category, becoming the first Indian to do so. The 19-year-old has four ITTF Junior Circuit Boys' Singles titles to his name and was the top-ranked U-18 paddler in the world for most of last season.
Manika Batra: Time to shine again?
Manika Batra was a big part of India’s success at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, winning four of the country’s eight medals, including two gold.
However, 2019 saw the 24-year-old's form take a dip, marred by a slew of early eliminations. Compounding her problems further was a split with her former coach Sandeep Gupta.
Ranked 61st in the world, she remains India's top-ranked female paddler and will be looking forward to the Tokyo 2020 qualifier as an opportunity to turn her fortunes around.
India’s hopes of punching the Olympic ticket
Of the 16 team spots, six have already gone to the continental champions Australia, Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany and USA, while hosts Japan have a direct entry to both team events.
That leaves nine team spots up for grab in the Portugal event, and this is where India's men's squad has its best and final shot. The eight teams who make it to the quarter-final of the knockout will qualify for Tokyo 2020, and following that, a new knockout bracket will determine one final qualifier.
With 34 entries, the fifth-seeded Indian men's side will have to win two ties — the round of 32 and round of 16 — against lower-ranked opposition. Over on the women's side, there are 30 entries, and the Indian eves will have to come out on top in two ties against higher-ranked competition.
Preparations on point so far
In order to assure their best form ahead of the qualification event, the Indian team has been undergoing a rigorous training stint in Dusseldorf, Germany from January 13.
Sharath Kamal, who has taken charge of the team and also serves as a mentor, decided to use this opportunity to turn up focus on match practice and staying fit.
Prior to that, the world number 33 had organised a week-long training camp in Chennai beginning on December 23, with an aim toward honing technique, footwork, fitness and building up the base.
The impressive showings as well as the thorough ongoing preparation have perked the hopes of former Indian table tennis captain Kamlesh Mehta, who told Sportstar, “We are proud of the performances of the Indian table tennis team. They have been excellent. Now they will be going for the Olympic qualification and what they have achieved so far is superb.”
Where to watch
The Table Tennis Olympic World Qualification Event will kick off on January 22 in Gondomar, Portugal and end on January 26.
Live coverage of the event will be available on the official website of the International Table Tennis Federation.