Harmeet Desai’s early years in table tennis were marked by taunts every time he went to school. It’s not that he was bad at academics, or that his table tennis exploits were insignificant. But when you come from Surat, a business hub, professional ambitions in sport were largely looked down upon. It’s for that reason that the 26-year-old hated school while growing up.
“I would be away from school for many days because of outstation tournaments, so the teachers used to say things to me like ‘you’re wasting your parents’ money’ or ‘why do you even bother coming to school,’” Desai recalls. “When I’d win tournaments and come back, I had to stand in front of the class and explain where I went, what the tournament was, but nobody would understand the relevance. People didn’t follow sport because the city had a strong business culture.”
In time, Desai would become one of the first sportspersons to emerge from the city, and then the trophies became bigger and more prestigious. So far, he has an Asian Games bronze medal in the men’s team event, a gold (men’s team) and bronze (men’s doubles) at the Commonwealth Games, and two gold medals from the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship in 2015 – which was incidentally held in Surat.
On Monday, at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship in Cuttack, he pulled off an upset over compatriot Gnanasekaran Sathiyan to win the men’s title – his biggest singles victory. The triumph wasn’t expected, and Desai had to muster every ounce of his tenacity and aggression, and also something he’s never tried before – patience.
“I lost the first two sets and realised that I needed to keep more balls on the table, make the rallies go on for longer and then wait for openings,” he explains. “I had to believe that I could win, and just had to be patient on every point. It worked.”
There’s a strong friendship Desai shares with Sathiyan. It was over a decade ago that they made their way into the national set-up and have remained key figures in Indian table tennis ever since. But over time, their paths have led to different routes. Desai had risen to as high as 60th in the world, but could not find consistency in his play and dropped down to No. 120, where he sits currently. Sathiyan, meanwhile, took a brief hiatus from the sport to pursue an engineering degree and now, ranked 24th in the world, is the only Indian to have ever broken into the top 25.
That’s what made the win even sweeter for Desai.
“It always feels great to beat such a top player,” he says. “I’ve beaten a few former top 20 players, but this match really gave me a lot of information about myself. It showed me what I need to do to get to a higher level, and since I did get the win, I know I have it in me.”
The journey to this title has taken Desai 20 years. He remembers being six when his father brought home a table to play with his friends. But it was the son, despite not being tall enough for the table, who was adamant to play. That’s when the first hurdle presented itself.
“The table was for my dad and his friends to play. So they’d shoo me away and tell me I’m not big enough for it,” he says. “So I used to go crying to my mother, she’d get tired of me and then tell my father to let me play. That was the only way I’d get to play.”
It took him a year of those start-stop playing sessions to realise that this was the path he wanted to take up professionally. And it was a decision that sat well with his parents. He was sent to train at the fabled Petroleum Sports Promotion Board (PSPB) Academy in Ajmer for a year. After that, his father would arrange sessions with coaches from West Bengal – a table tennis hub. In 2010, Desai won a scholarship to train at the prestigious Peter Karlsson Academy in Sweden.
“That’s where I learnt the true meaning of being a professional,” he says. “All aspects of the game were addressed, especially off-table work, which was something I had never done. The general perception here is that you have to do a lot of running and agility work for table tennis. But in Sweden, I started doing weight training. That’s how you get the power in your shots.”
Desai stayed in Sweden for five years, then shifted to Austria for a year and spent two years in Portugal. Now he plays for Bad Homburg in the second division of the German Bundesliga – the most sought-after league in the world.
He will visit home before his next trip to Europe. And when he does get back to Surat, he will have a new trophy to parade. This time though, no explanations will be required.