To say she was distraught would be an understatement. After her heart-breaking 3-4 (11-3, 6-11, 2-11, 11-7, 13-15, 11-9, 7-11) loss to Australia’s Yangzi Liu in the women’s singles bronze medal match of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, India’ Sreeja Akula was inconsolable.
Half an hour later, Sharath Kamal, India’s 40-year-old table tennis star, had just finished a match himself. He walked into the dressing room and on seeing the 24-year-old Sreeja crying, he said something that would lighten the mood.
“Don’t cry now, cry after the mixed doubles match,” he said with a laugh, referring to the final he was supposed to play alongside Sreeja in about five hours.
Sreeja couldn’t control her laughter.
She and Sharath teamed up to win India’s first-ever mixed doubles Commonwealth Games gold and it was a sort of redemption for Sreeja after her loss earlier in the day.
This was also the moment when the decision of Sreeja’s parents to back their daughter’s table tennis career and put academics on the backburner paid off.
Till Sreeja turned 18, they had no idea whether she could make a career out of the sport.
“Nobody in my family is a sportsperson,” Sreeja tells The Indian Express after returning from Birmingham. “When you don’t have a sportsperson in your family, there’s always an apprehension of being a professional athlete.”
Sreeja’s table tennis journey began at the age of eight. Watching her sister, Ravali — who’s three years older than her — play and excel at state tournaments, Sreeja wanted to be like her.
“My dad did play table tennis at local tournaments but it wasn’t at a high level. My parents wanted my sister to play some indoor sport and because my dad loved table tennis, they decided to enroll her in classes,” she says.
Though Ravali showed plenty of promise, studies got in the way after Grade 10. She gave up table tennis for academics. So when Sreeja reached that age, she thought that the natural progression was to give up table tennis and focus on her studies.
“I wanted to become a chartered accountant. My sister convinced me and my family not to make the same mistake she made. She convinced me to continue playing TT because she saw how much I loved it and that I was quite decent at it too,” she says.
There was another problem. Though she was doing well at the junior level, her parents weren’t quite sure it would be financially sustainable to play a sport professionally.
“It’s only when I turned 18 and got a job with RBI because of table tennis that my family let go of that apprehension. It was then that I too could concentrate more on the sport because I didn’t have to worry about the financial aspect.”
2019 was the breakthrough year for her, she says. “It was the first time I played in the senior category and won two medals. At the Commonwealth TT Championships in Cuttack, I won bronze in singles and mixed doubles and silver in doubles.”
While Sreeja and Sharath made the unlikeliest of partnerships in Birmingham, they had partnered with each other once before. And it happened by chance.
“At the 2019 Commonwealth Championship, it so happened that Manika (Batra) fell sick after the team event. And since I play with a pimpled rubber like her, Sharath asked me to play with him. I was so nervous but we ended up winning bronze so it was alright,” she says.
While she was playing her best in 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and that meant a break. And she wasn’t used to taking breaks. “I like to over-work myself. I train all the time so I wasn’t used to so much free time but I quite enjoyed it. I got to spend time with family and that was quite refreshing,” she says.
This year she won the national championships, sealing a spot in India’s team for the Commonwealth Games. “It’s like I’m living a dream, but a dream I’ve worked very hard for,” she says.
So what does she expect to change after her gold in Birmingham? Not much, Sreeja, who trains in Hyderabad, says.
“I’ll still have to drive 40 minutes at 5.45am to my training center. I’ll still take the metro every evening to avoid traffic. If anything, I’ll be training harder,” Sreeja, who is coached by Somnath Ghosh at his academy in a Hyderabad mall, says.