UTT 2019: Benedikt Duda, Kirill Gerassimenko credit league for improvements in their game; Matilda Ekholm predicts bright future for Indian table tennis

Harshit Rakheja

In India, every sport has encountered a tipping point, the moment where it escapes obscurity and wades into the mainstream news cycle, forcing people to sit up and take notice.

For cricket, it was the 1983 world cup triumph. For badminton, Prakash Padukone wrote the first page of India's legacy in the sport, becoming the first Indian to win the All England Badminton Championships in 1980.

However, in recent times, Saina Nehwal's consistent performances on the tour, several podium finishes including a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics and her elevation to world number one in the women's singles rankings, enlivened badminton for the Indian masses.

In hockey, India rediscovered its days of yore by winning its first silver medal at the FIH Champions Trophy in 2016.

For table tennis, the tipping point lay in the inception of the Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) league back in 2017. Franchise based leagues modelled on the Indian Premier League (IPL) have emerged as the best bet for sports bodies in India to provide their sportspersons ample exposure to the best international practices. They do so by bringing foreign players to Indian shores, allowing the local players to learn from their more experienced peers.

And if the three seasons of the league thus far are anything to go by, TTFI seems to have hit gold, the results showing in a year with India's record medal haul in 2018, the Indian paddlers winning eight medals at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

Further, India also won its first medals in table tennis at the Asian Games in 60 years. The men's team beat reigning Olympic champions Japan for the bronze medal in the team event, besides Indian veteran Achanta Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra winning the bronze in the mixed doubles at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.

India's top singles players Achanta Sharath Kamal and G Sathiyan have claimed that the country has a very realistic chance of winning a medal in table tennis at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They've also credited the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) and the UTT for the growth of the sport in India.

Moreover, even the foreign players who've participated in the UTT have attested to the fact that the Indian players aren't far behind the rest in terms of their skills post the advent of the league. "There may still be a very small gulf in skills between the Indian and the foreign players but I see the Indians improving at an amazing pace," says Matilda Ekholm, ranked 26 in the world.

"Within a couple of years, the UTT teams might have a hard time finding foreign players who can keep up with the Indians," said the Swedish player who played for RPSG Mavericks Kolkata this season.

Ekholm wasn't the only player who was all praises for the Indian table tennis players. Her team-mate, Benedikt Duda of Germany was also unequivocal in asserting that there isn't much of a gulf left between India and the rest when it comes to table tennis.

"You see Amalraj Anthony (Goa Challengers) and all of us can agree that he is the fastest player in this league. I lost to him and so have many others so I don't think the Indians' rankings are anything to go by when judging their potential," said Duda who played his debut season in the UTT this year.

The German went on to elaborate on how the UTT fares when compared to the other table tennis leagues in the world, particularly the German Bundesliga where he has himself been playing since 2014. "Here there is more pressure because every match is played in the best of three games. In Bundesliga, we have the best of five games format so you can start slow but still win the match," said Duda.

"There's a lot of mental conditioning needed here and you have to work more on your fitness so that you're quick to get off the blocks as every team has such fierce talent."

Goa Challengers' Alvaro Robles also credited the shorter format of the UTT for inculcating "mental toughness" in him. "There's no time here to get set so I've learnt a lot, on how to be match ready not just physically but mentally," said Alvaro, the world number 56 from Spain who was part of the Falcons TTC squad which finished second in season two of the UTT.

He too, lavished praise on his team-mate Amalraj while explaining the Indian paddlers' style of play. "I see the Indian players playing very good defensively, keeping the ball in play and then surprising you by changing their stance and switching to the offence. When Amalraj does it, you don't stand much of a chance because he's so fast."

U Mumba's Kirill Gerassimenko, who hails from Kazakhstan and is playing his debut season in UTT, credited the league for its professionalism, while also speaking about the 'behind the scenes' production. "I think it's a very novel effort here in India as such leagues help a lot for international tournaments, one gets to learn from players from around the world before they start their season on the pro tour," said Kirill who's been a crowd favourite this season for his innovative shot-making.

"In Germany's Bundesliga, there's a huge hall there with an audience of about 10,000 people but there's just one camera. Here, the crowd may be less in number, but there are multiple cameras and the television and media coverage is all so good and intensive so I think that's very good for growing the sport in India."

The U Mumba player also elaborated on certain aspects of his game which he thinks have improved from his time in India, playing in the UTT. "There are certain strokes which I think I have improved upon as the butterfly flick," said Kirill as he demonstrates the stroke, a wristy flick off the backhand.

Earlier, Benedikt Duda had also outlined the improvements in his game while playing in the UTT. "My backhand has improved a lot. Before UTT, I would play only the drive off the backhand but now, I can put some spin on it and play it for winners," said Duda.

When asked about the athletes' dilemma of playing in franchise based leagues such as the UTT or Bundesliga versus playing on the international pro tour, the 37-year-old Matilda Ekholm offered a real insight. "I think such leagues are the need of the hour for young players to showcase their talent as, on the pro tour, it is very difficult to make a living unless you're in the top 20," she signed off.

Also See: UTT 2019, Semi-finals Preview: Dabang Delhi have history on their side against U Mumba; Goa look to avenge loss to Chennai

UTT 2019: Benedikt Duda, Sanil Shetty salvage some pride for Kolkata Mavericks in heavy loss to Sharath Kamal's Chennai Lions

UTT 2019: Achanta Sharath Kamal, Madhurika Patkar pull off heist to help Chennai Lions beat Goa Challengers in second semi-final

Read more on Sports by Firstpost.