Panchkula, Feb 19 (PTI) The limelight will be on nine-time champion A. Sharath Kamal and G. Sathiyan as India's top paddlers step onto the arena for the 82nd National Table Tennis Championships here on Saturday.
Devoid of competition for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 200 entrants that have entered the fray believe the group qualification events at the Tau Devi Lal Indoor Stadium will mark a fresh beginning for them.
The focus will be on top-ranked Indian Sharath. But Sathiyan, ranked 37, will be one of the strong contenders for the title. However, both can expect more than a handful of challenges from defending champion Harmeet Desai.
The advantages of the last two over Sharath is that Sathiyan and Harmeet got away from India at the first opportunity when the doors of some European countries opened after COVID had slackened its grip a bit.
Both Sathiyan and Harmeet have had serious match-practice since, having played the leagues. Sathiyan went to Japan for another set of league matches before returning to Poland.
They are back in India and will challenge each other, besides Sharath, who looks to complete a perfect 10.
Yet, one cannot rule out the possibility of young guns, especially Manav Thakkar, springing a surprise. The prize purse is Rs. 2.50 lakh.
Interestingly, the championships offer the best chance to reboot themselves for the WTT Contenders (march 3-6) and Star Contenders (March 8-13) at Doha, major prize money events.
The World Singles (14-17) and Asian Olympics Qualification (March 18-20), both the gateway to Tokyo Olympics, follow suit.
Understandably, Sharath and Sathiyan have been seeded No. 1 and 2 due to their world rankings.
Sathiyan, who skipped all domestic tournaments in 2019, will look to adjust to the conditions.
But Sharath, who has attended a 42-day national camp at Sonepat, knows them better. He is also in good shape despite being inactive.
The other 14 seeds will be picked during the open draw before Stage 2 matches begin. The remaining players, divided into 60 groups, will have between three to four players each.
After the group qualification, the main draw will be filled with 128 slots, including 52 byes. However, the top 16 and a few lucky ones from among the group qualifiers will reap the benefit of first-round-byes.
'We will use DHS DJ 40+ balls during the tournament, the same as during the World Singles and Asian Qualification event in Doha and the Tokyo Olympics,' said competition manager N. Ganeshan.
C.L. Thade, the experienced referee, will be in charge of the tournament with support from deputy Atul Dubey and 45 technical hands. PTI AH AH AT AT