The Indian table tennis scene is much more alive than it was seven years ago but at the top of the ladder, players need to unlearn the defensive European style and adopt an all-attacking Chinese approach, feels Italy’s Massimo Costantini in his second stint as the foreign coach of the national team.
The European, who relates only to the aggressive Chinese way of playing the game, can safely say the table tennis movement is alive and kicking in India after observing talent around the country for over four months.
“There is definitely a lot more interest (at grassroot level) compared to seven years ago. A lot more money in the game. Most importantly, the top players now have the knowledge and attitude to become world-class players. It wasn’t the case earlier,” Costantini told PTI on the sidelines of Senior Nationals being held in Manesar, Haryana.
The Italian has set clear goals for his time in India. He wants to create a big enough pool of players from which he can “pick the best of the best”.
At the top of the priority list is the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where he wants the squad to put up a much improved showing than what it managed in Glasgow four years ago.
It was a dismal campaign for India at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where it settled for just a single medal, a stark drop in performance compared to the 2010 edition at home, where it ended with a record medal haul of five including a gold in the men’s doubles.
It was a big setback as it is only at the Commonwealth level, India is expected to win medals.
“We have achievable targets,” says Costantini, who would like to extend his contract beyond the Asian Games next year.
“We are looking at least a couple of medals. We want to do much better than 2014. At same time, other countries are improving. And probably India is the only Commonwealth country apart from Nigeria which doesn’t have players of Chinese origin. The set-up is very original at a time when it is very easy to get players from abroad.
“As a coach I need time (to execute my plans). The CWG is the most achievable target. Unfortunately, India is in Asia where it is super competitive. You can’t touch the top teams (China, South Korea, Japan),” he says.
Costantini is pleasantly surprised that veteran Sharath Kamal remains a world-class player despite touching mid 30s and a significant sign of progress is that India now has three players in the top-100 with Soumyajit Ghosh (rank 82) and Manika Batra (88) joining Sharath (62) in the club.
Then there are players like Harmeet Desai and G Sathiyan who are knocking on the top-100 door, currently at 112 and 114 respectively.
“These are definitely good signals. Sharath is still a world class player despite his age. Ghosh is getting good results but too many ups and downs in his case. Sathiyan recently won an ITTF Pro Tour event in Belgium.
“Now these guys have the knowledge and attitude to be world-class players. It is very important because that same approach reflects in their training. Especially for the new generation, it is hugely motivating.”
Besides building a strong bench, the former US coach Costantini wants players to play fearlessly like the Chinese.
“I have got my best coaches from China. I relate my knowledge with China even though I am European. They have the attitude to attack, I have the attitude to attack but Europeans like to defend.
“Having said that, I don’t want them to be fully Chinese but if I make them change the time of hitting the ball even by a quarter of a second, it will be huge. The more you wait (to hit the ball) the easier it becomes for the opponent, this is what Europeans to do while the Chinese kill it on the bounce.
“The game has changed a lot in the last 7-8 years. Game is going faster and faster. The Chinese barely return with a push, they attack 9 out of 10 times. In Europe, they will return with a push 5 out of 10 times. That is the difference. Indians have the skills but they don’t trust them too much. That is another area I am trying to work on,” concludes Costantini.