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Home » Table Tennis » Seven months without a coach, Indian table tennis stars forced to fend for themselves – ESPN

Seven months without a coach, Indian table tennis stars forced to fend for themselves – ESPN

Eight medals and twelve months since they snuck under the spotlight, Indian table tennis players are living life without a national coach.

Coach Massimo Costantini, who led the side to a historic performance at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) where India finished with eight medals, quit soon after the Asian Games in September. It’s been seven months since and with a breakdown in planning and coordination, aspects entirely handled by Costantini formerly, players are left to fire-fight for themselves – months without camps, last-minute tournament sanctions and even managing tournament costs and logistics.

Among top players, there is a sense of angst.

“It looks bad, actually,” says Achanta Sharath Kamal, four-time CWG gold medallist. “Nothing is working properly. There’s no planning. It’s getting a bit difficult. Overall, it’s a huge void right now.”

In March this year sanctions for the Oman (20-24 March) and Qatar (26-31 March) Challenge Plus tournaments didn’t come through from the Sports Authority of India (SAI), leaving players scrambling to book tickets, hotels, arrange visas and manage logistics, all by themselves and at their own cost. The tournaments were a day apart and in the absence of a travelling physio, players struggled with rest and recovery. As a workaround, India’s top-ranked singles player Sathiyan Gnanasekaran says he spent more time in the pool and sauna and also sought assistance from organizers’ physios. “Sometimes I requested other players to help me with stretching and somehow managed to get by. I played close to 10 matches with each lasting at least six or seven games and with just a day in between both tournaments. It was killing. For a senior player like Sharath, it was a lot worse.”

To avoid a similar scenario in future tournaments starting with the World Championships later this month (April 21-28), players are even prepared to split costs to hire a physio. With no word from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport (MYAS) since the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) submitted its proposal for the tournament on February 27, players had begun chalking out ad-hoc arrangements among themselves with Sharath, as senior-most member of the side, taking the lead in planning and coordinating the conduct of the pre-tournament preparatory camp. Clearance for their travel for the World C’ships came through from the Ministry only two days ago along with a go-ahead for a 10-day camp in Denmark.

In the absence of a coach, Sharath and Sathiyan have also taken it upon themselves to liaise with the federation in planning for tournaments. “My role,” says Sharath, “is to get players together and find places to train before tournaments and coordinate with the federation so that they also have an idea of what we need. But the federation too is helpless because without SAI and the Ministry releasing funds there’s little they can do on their own either.”

For convenience of travel and logistics, Sharath and Sathiyan have since begun scheduling their trips for camps, tournaments and pro tours to and from their hometown Chennai together. “Earlier Max (Costantini) would take care of everything from chalking out our calendars to budgeting to acting as the bridge between players, federation and the Ministry and getting budgets sanctioned. Of course, I can convey what tournaments I’d want to play in a year and which to skip and conserve energy. But funds allocation shouldn’t be something a player has to worry about. That’s not our job,” Sathiyan says.

In its defence, TTFI says the current mess that they find themselves in is borne out of Costantini’s sudden decision to leave at a time when most top foreign coaches were already contracted. According to the federation, approvals for Canadian Dejan Papic’s appointment on a one-year contract have finally come through from SAI and the Ministry and he’s likely to take over in July. In principle, TTFI says, Papic has also agreed to travel to Budapest to meet the Indian players at the World C’ship ahead of formally joining the team.

“SAI has assured us that things will return to normalcy from July,” says Sathiyan, “but in a pre-Olympic year, every week, every month counts. We can’t just wait around. Time is running out.”

It would effectively leave exactly a year’s time for the Olympics and just five months before the first qualification event – world team qualifiers – in January 2020. Too little for a foreign coach to acclimatize himself with the system, crack the Indian way of functioning and get players ready for the Games.

In this melee, Sharath fears his worst nightmare might have come true. The momentum from the medal rush, the big results and the unexpected attention last year, he feels, “may have just slipped”.

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