UTT 2019: From new format aimed at keeping audience to bright show by Indian paddlers, key takeaways from third season

Harshit Rakheja

The paddlers' shouts of triumph at landing their forehand winners, the hurrahs of victory and the sighs of what could have been, agony and ecstasy, all has ceased for the year as the Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) season three has drawn to a close.

The arena at Delhi's Thyagaraj Stadium, until Sunday, lay packed with kids and adults alike, all revelling in their shared discovery of a sport which had never commanded their attention until recently.

When it did, it had the kids hooked, not wanting to let go of what they held dear. Table tennis is now dear to them, not least because the UTT is an experience in itself.

They gasp in unison, pull a long face when their favourite player loses, only to brush off their disappointment as the anchor calls for a Dance-Cam. "If your face is on the screen, you have to dance," she announces but the crowd rarely needs the encouragement.

They are drunk in delight when their face pops on the big screen, pull a few moves and are cured of their heartbreak, engrossed in the next match, cheering for their favourite team.

Anthony Amalraj in action during the Ultimate Table Tennis season three. Image credits UTT

Anthony Amalraj in action during the Ultimate Table Tennis season three. Image credits UTT

Many of them had chanced upon UTT and table tennis when the league had its inaugural edition back in 2017. Two years later, they frequent the stadium with their families.

When it was first announced that the UTT season three will be held entirely in Delhi, Charu Rohatgi recounts, her daughter's happiness knew no bounds.

"She had joined table tennis coaching in a local academy after the second season. Now, we can't get her out of her sportswear as she'll come home from practice, not wanting to change but only for us to drive to Thyagaraj for the UTT," Rohatgi says with a smile.

She caresses her daughter's hair, prompting her to speak about her love for the sport but Ishita gazes at the match unflinchingly, not wanting to miss a single point played by her favourite table tennis player, Manika Batra who played for RPSG Mavericks Kolkata this season.

All matches this year have had a good attendance from kids who are buoyed by the fact that just like the previous editions, the organisers have kept the tickets free. It seems like a sound decision for the league can only be successful once the sport cultivates an audience for itself and thereon, builds its appeal.

Part of the organisers' plan this season was to make the format of the league more compact. To that effect, they had reduced the number of matches per tie to five instead of seven last season, which meant a telecast time of two hours. This new format was just long enough to arouse curiosity in those uninitiated in the sport while also not boring the same set of people into flipping the channel.

Moreover, many of the kids in the crowd are frequent visitors, indicating their interest in table tennis which might even spur them into taking up the sport professionally. A section in the visitors' stands is also reserved for the ball boys, their friends and families.

In that way, the UTT provides much-needed exposure to the current crop of Indian players while also instilling a desire in the younger generation to take up table tennis.

Quality of play

For the rapid strides made by the Indian table tennis players, credit goes, in no small measure, to the UTT for bridging the gulf between India and the heavyweights of the sport.

In the first two seasons, an Indian player's victory over any foreign player in the league was termed an 'upset'. However, that wasn't the case in the third season owing to the regularity with which the Indian players got the better of their foreign counterparts.

India's top-ranked player in the men's singles, G Sathiyan ranked 24 in the world, was also ranked above all of his foreign counterparts in the league who were contesting in the men's singles.

Sathiyan's form this season justified his billing as he notched up notable wins against Germany's Benedikt Duda 3-0 and Kazakhstan's Kirill Gerassimenko 2-1 besides beating Indian veteran, Achanta Sharath Kamal 2-1.

19-year-old Manav Thakkar, who until last year, was contesting in the junior circuit and is ranked 160 in the world, won four out of his six singles matches in the league. The last of those was a 2-1 win against Sweden's world number 63 Jon Persson in the first semi-final.

However, if there was anyone who proved that in table tennis, the world rankings are an improper metric for judging a player's potential, it was India's 33-year-old Amalraj Anthony.

The Goa Challengers' player also notched up wins against Jon Persson and Benedikt Duda, belittling his world ranking of 122. Further, many of the foreign players lauded Amalraj for his speed and agility around the table, terming him the quickest player on the tour.

Among the women, India's Sutirtha Mukherjee ended the season as the only unbeaten women's singles player. The U Mumba player who is ranked a lowly 231 in the world, won all six of her singles matches, which included a 2-1 win over the world number 24 Petrissa Solja from Germany who played for the Chennai Lions this season.

Mukherjee also claimed a step-up in the Indian pecking order by beating Indian number one and world number 56 Manika Batra 2-1.

The impressive performances from the young Indian paddlers such as Manav Thakkar and Sutirtha Mukherjee this season herald a bright future for Indian table tennis.

After all, it is when the Indian crop of players start competing with each other in a way that there are no predictable outcomes, no favourites and no underdogs that we'll truly be looking at a well-balanced Indian table tennis team, where there are no weak links.

Importance of UTT and franchise based leagues

In several conversations with the players and the team coaches, a common point of assertion remained their positive opinion of the UTT. Bettine Vriesekoop and Vesna Ojstersek, the foreign coaches for Goa Challengers and Dabang Delhi respectively, praised the UTT as a "great shot" and a "positive promotion" of the sport which won't bore the audience.

"The crisp format and the golden point make it a much more intense competition and I think the world over, that is what the audience wants. That is how you'll get people to tune in every day," said Bettine.

"It must be treated as separate from the World Championships but I believe the leagues should be audience-friendly like UTT and present opportunities for the youngsters to showcase their talent."

Delhi's foreign coach Vesna Ojstersek said that even though the UTT is just three years old, it remains the second-best league in the world after the German Bundesliga Table Tennis.

"I have seen a real interest internationally, among players and coaches who want to be a part of the UTT. Germany may have a stronger league but when compared with the time they've had to gather that status, I think the UTT should be proud that it has emerged as a viable destination for international players in just three years," said Vesna who hails from Slovenia.

What also came to light from these conversations is the fact that the international pro tour for table tennis remains cluttered. Players spend a considerable amount of time on the road partaking in the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) tournaments. In between, the regional or continental championships such as the European championships or the Asian Championships might occur.

International multi-sporting events such as the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the Olympics are a huge priority for the players but the road to glory at such events rarely allows any breathing space or opportunity to reload after a long season.

In India, players also have to juggle their international playing commitments with national-level tournaments, such as the Senior National Championships and the national ranking tournaments.

When asked how she weighs the importance of playing in international tournaments versus playing in franchise based leagues such as the UTT, RPSG Mavericks Kolkata's Matilda Ekholm had a rather frank take on the subject. "On the pro tour, it is very difficult for a player ranked outside the top 20 to make a living," said Matilda, the world number 25 who hails from Sweden.

"This is why I feel like the franchise based leagues such as the UTT are doing a huge service for the sport, also allowing players to experience playing in the team format where the pro tour is all about performing individually," she signed off.

Also See: UTT 2019: Manav Thakkar bags mixed doubles, reverse singles to clinch victory from jaws of defeat for U Mumba

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

UTT 2019: Manav Thakkar's positive show guides U Mumba to thrilling victory over RP-SG Mavericks Kolkata

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