Barely minutes after her first-ever international match, an over-animated television interviewer thrust a microphone into 11-year-old Tanisi Kirtani’s face. Pointing towards the India flag on her jacket, he asked her whether it felt special playing for the tricolour. Instead of churning out the regular cliches, Tanisi – quite innocently – replied: “I really don’t know”.
The answer drew gentle laughter. She was being honest and did not bother to pretend to be ahead of her years — just like she plays. The youngest-ever athlete to compete at the Lusofonia Games was nervous ahead of her debut match against Angola’s Tavares Ruth but once she stepped on the court, she was her own self, bouncing around, smiling and flustering her seasoned opponent with an occasional, feisty forehand smash – her most potent weapon.
She was not expected to win — she didn’t. But in the half hour she spent on the court, Tanisi gave ample evidence as to why national coach Peter Engel regards her as the “best thing ever to have happened to Indian table-tennis”.
With her neatly pony-tailed hair and t-shirt obediently tucked in, the 4-foot-5-inch tall paddler has been turning quite a few heads at Peddem Sports Complex’s the newly-constructed table tennis venue. The arena, which wore a rather sleepy look for the first two days of the competition, came to life when the local hope was named in the playing team, along with seasoned India campaigners Ankita Das and Madhurika Patkar.
“Sometimes, there are lessons you learn even from defeats and she has realised that today,” Engel said after the match.
The German, who has previously been the head coach of the national team of Spain and the Netherlands, isn’t one who easily gets carried away by spotting a young talent. Even so, he rubbed his hands anticipation when he first spotted Tanisi.
“I haven’t seen this kind of hunger and anticipation in any Indian player. Technically too, she is quite good. My major grouse with most Indian woman players is they don’t use their feet much. The first time I saw Tanisi during the nationals (cadet girls’ category) in Siliguri, I was amazed. She moved quite well and had this confidence in her, which is quite rare,” he said.
However, the Games for Tanisi almost ended before they even began. During the Opening Ceremony on Saturday, where she had to light the torch, she fell unconscious owing to what is suspected to be food poisoning. She was taken to a nursing home and was not included in the team for India’s opening match against Sri Lanka on Sunday. The team management included her in the squad for Monday’s game only after they were assured that she was match fit.
Tanisi was selected for the Goa-India squad at the Lusofonia Games two years ago on the virtue of being her state’s top-ranked table tennis player.
“I feel lucky to be given this opportunity to early in my career. I am most happy when I play table tennis. I have learnt so many things by spending times with the senior players and the coach,” said Tanisi, who started playing when she was six years old.
Quite a few Indian players have shown promise at the youth stage only to fizzle out at the senior level. Engel acknowledged the need to nurture Tanisi carefully to realise her full potential. Engel said that initially, he was worried that the leap from cadet juniors to the open category might prove to be too much for her to handle. He was, however, surprised with the composure she showed during the match.
“She always tried to find a way back and even though she ran out of ideas, she did not give up,” Engel said.
So impressed is the coach that he is mulling to invite her to the national camp at Patiala, which will begin next month. “The squad for Commonwealth Games is already selected. However, we will invite her to Patiala to train with the seniors. We need to invest a lot of time and energy on her. It might be worth it,” Engel said.