In the last few months, Indian table tennis made headlines and history.
Starting with the Commonwealth Games " where India won eight medals, including men's and women's team golds and Manika Batra's women's singles gold " the country made waves at the Asian Games at Jakarta-Palembang with two bronze medals, which came courtesy of the men's team and Sharath Kamal-Manika's mixed doubles exploits.
To top it off, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Manika broke into hitherto unchartered territories by reaching world rankings of 28 and 47 earlier this year.
But with the Tokyo Olympics looming on the horizon, the next step Indian table tennis needs to take is to build on the momentum of the past few months.
Unfortunately, with the national team yet to find a replacement for coach Massimo Costantini, the national teams are in a state of limbo at the moment. While the Table Tennis Federation of India was keen on renewing his contract till the Tokyo Olympics, the Italian chose not to stay with the Indian team citing personal reasons in September last year.
"Finding a replacement for Costantini should be the first step for Indian table tennis. A coach is the missing piece right now," said Neha Aggarwal, who represented India at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is currently the Head of Partnerships at Olympic Gold Quest.
"Finding a coach is very urgent for the men's players, but the bigger urgency is for the women, because they're not playing in the European leagues. It's only through the national camp and infrequent tournaments that the women come together and get to be a part of that environment," she added.
Aggarwal, who spoke to Firstpost on the sidelines of India's Future Tycoons, a platform for young entrepreneurs organised by EN power, in Mumbai on Sunday, added: "The time between now to the Tokyo Games, is precious. We cannot afford to lose this. A roadmap needs to be laid out. There's a lot of enthusiasm in table tennis in India at the moment. So it's very important to carry this momentum forward. But all of that will happen only once there's a national coach!"
To illustrate her point, she also pointed out how Costantini had, over his two stints, helped Indian table tennis take a leap forward.
"India's success has been a long process. At the end of 2008, the whole wave of promoting table tennis from the government started. We did well in 2010. But then Costantini left and we had Peter Engel. 2014 was a bit of a disappointment. And then four players " Sharath, Soumyajeet Ghosh, Manika and Mouma Das went to Rio 2016.
"Costantini and Engel were two good coaches, but the difference was that Peter was not a good administrator. Until 2016, what was missing in Indian table tennis was good management. By that I mean, giving proposals to TTFI in time, having the plans for the players and teams ready, and essentially getting a structure in place. Planning well ahead about what tournaments need to be played, what countries we can go to for good training.
"I think why the men's table tennis players did well was because they took the onus on themselves to do so. We've seen Sathiyan go out and play in the European leagues. About four to five male players had settled in Europe and were playing there. That made a lot of difference," said Aggarwal before adding, "And when Massimo came back, while the players had taken the onus on themselves, the government also began supporting because there was a plan in place. A structure was there. Players were going to Asia and to Europe for training for different perspectives.
"For the players, there was already a well-laid structure in place, they just had to follow it. And because the mentality was that we can do something at the Asian Games, these two things combined to make a lot of difference."
One eye on Tokyo¦another on 2022
On being asked what needs to be done keeping Tokyo 2020 in the sights, Aggarwal said: "It's a different level of planning. For the seniors " the top 10 players " there needs to be a foreign coach under whom you go out and play more tournaments in Asia and Europe. Then, there has to be a coach training the mid-level players " those who are 18 to 21 years. Players like Manav Thakkar, who are graduating from the juniors and moving to the seniors. He (Thakkar) reached the No 1 ranking at the junior level.
"But how do you get him to the next level? That's the bunch of players you need to train as well. Such players could also accompany Sharath and Sathiyan or be with Harmeet Desai and Anthony Amalraj all the time so that they get exposure and are able to transition well. And then there's the junior bunch of players. People like Archana Kamath, who just won the nationals. Her world ranking in the seniors is not all that high. So she needs more international exposure. But how do you get that? That's a combination of juniors, who are transitioning, and the seniors.
"And you cannot forget the grassroots, which is essentially your junior players who you think can make the teams in 2022 (Commonwealth and Asian Games). How do you prepare a team for that stage?"
Mixed doubles could lead to medal
Aggarwal believes that with the inclusion of mixed doubles at Tokyo 2020, India have as much chance as any other country to make it to the top of the podium.
"The inclusion of mixed doubles at the Tokyo 2020 Games has added another aspect into the mix of what we should be planning for. It's possible to win a medal in mixed doubles, because it has been added for the first time. All the teams will be starting from scratch. If Sharath and Manika can win a medal at Asian Games " it wasn't a fluke, they beat three good pairs in one day " it shows they have it in them.
"But how do you get them ready for 2020 to win a medal. So a lot of things have to be looked at. The coach needs to be in place, he's the most important aspect, whether you're preparing an individual or a team. Now that we have done so well, we should carry the momentum forward," added the 29-year-old.