The only player to have been retained by a franchise, ahead of the player draft of Ultimate Table Tennis’ (UTT) third season was Gnanasekaran Sathiyan – by defending champions Dabang Smashers. And within the first few picks, his compatriots Achanta Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra too had been snapped. These are the three biggest Indian players in the sport, and it wasn’t surprising that their services were high on demand.
After all, Batra led the Indian women’s team to an unexpected gold at the Commonwealth Games, and then became the first Indian to win the individual title, the veteran Kamal’s leadership and hard-hitting strokes have continued to impress, and Sathiyan is the current world no 24 – the highest rank any Indian has ever reached.
“In the first year the worry was how the Indian players would cope with higher ranked foreign players coming here, but they managed to get some big wins,” explains Soumyadeep Roy, a former national champion and the current coach of the new U Mumba franchise. “Now things have changed. The Indian players have picked up drastically in terms of mental strength, performance and world rankings. So now teams want to build around the Indian players.”
And it wasn’t just the big trio of Indian table tennis on offer. There has been much anticipation about the future of Manav Thakkar and Archana Kamath – teenagers who have made rapid strides on the international circuit. While Thakkar had become junior world no 1, Kamath finished fourth at the Youth Olympic Games last year. Just like their senior counterparts, the pair too was among the first picks at the draft on Thursday – Thakkar going to U Mumba and Kamath getting the call-up from another new franchise, the Goa Challengers.
The biggest names, however, to feature in the draft were women’s world no 8 Cheng I-Ching of Chinese Taipei, and Hong Kong’s world no 11 Doo Hoi Kem.
A total of six franchises will compete in the third season that will be held in New Delhi this July, including four new franchises. Owners of the Pro Kabaddi League’s Puneri Paltan and U Mumba have dipped into the table tennis front this term, along with the new Chennai Lions team and the Goa franchise – co-owned by Shrinivas Dempo, chairman of the famous I-League team Dempo SC.
Back in 2014, Dempo also co-owned Indian Super League (ISL) outfit FC Goa but later sold his share. Meanwhile, Dempo SC had dropped down to the second division.
“We’re still a part of football, only at a smaller stage,” Dempo says. “Getting into table tennis though has been much more conducive. The sport is quick, the league gets over in a month, and you need a budget that’s probably not even 10 per cent of what you need for the ISL. Also, there’s a very big following of table tennis in Goa.”
The way football stands currently in the country, with the AIFF looking for a smooth way to merge the ISL and I-League, which direction the sport will turn to in the immediate future is unsure. Table tennis though, as Dempo puts it, ‘is in a good place.’
And for the third season of the sport’s marquee event, it’s the Indians that have taken centre stage.