The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same for Indian table tennis. The India Open is supposed to be the first litmus test in Massimo Costantini’s second stint as national coach. The Italian had laid emphasis on fitness and grooming young talent, cherry-picking several prospects to groom and videotape every time. However, on Thursday, it was veteran Sharath Kamal who again played the lone soldier.
The opening round of the $150,000 ITTF World Tour event saw billed attractions Manika Batra and Soumyajit Ghosh, reigning national champion Madhurika Patkar and young talents Ankita Das and Anthony Amalraj crash out. Only five of the 17 Indians managed to advance — and only one did so convincingly.
Sharath defeated Frenchman Can Akkuzu 11-5, 11-8, 11-4, 8-11, 11-8. With a spring in his step and a flurry of precise forehands, the 34-year-old gave the sparse crowd at Delhi’s Thyagaraj Stadium something to celebrate. “Easier than expected” is how the reigning national champion summed up the win over the two-time junior European champion. “I don’t like how the young guys play,” said Sharath.
“They overuse the backhand flick. I didn’t grow up playing that way so it’s tough to counter.” Inexplicably, the 20-year-old Frenchman chose not to use the backhand flick; a tactic which gave Sharath the start he needed. The Indian kept putting the ball closer to the net and got into position early.
“He started off with the wrong tactic because of his inexperience. He could not read the spin,” said Sharath. “I was surprised by the way he let me play and how I killed the game.” The only time Akkuzu posed problems was in the fourth game, when he resorted to his natural technique of hitting more backhands. By his own admission, Sharath tried many things and lost his focus and the game. He then slowed down the game to recover before completing the win with a ripping forehand, “an arrogant shot” played for the gallery.
Costantini agreed that Sharath is a “sniper” with his forehand, but noted that he had to be more consistent to compete at the top level. “At a certain level you cannot have any distractions,” said Costantini.
“When he goes out of the game, he takes too long. He loses the sharpness while top players are super consistent. I had to get him back with some key words. I told him the value of the game and made him responsible for his game.” Next up is world No. 24 Yuto Muramatsu and Sharath knows the Japanese will be “ready for a seven-setter”.
“I’ve never played him but saw him play when he was a kid in 2006. He’s a chopper and I’d have to finish points and avoid rallies,” said Sharath. “I cannot do the Nadal style.”
Joining Sharath in the second round are world No. 112 Harmeet Desai and 27-year-old southpaw Salin Shetty. While Harmeet upset world No. 77 Frenchman Tristan Flore, the latter knocked out world No. 71 Patrick Baum of Germany.
Krittwika Roy, 22, squandered multiple match points in a seven-game thriller against world No. 36 Huajun Jiang of Hong Kong.
To further deflate the crowd, star attraction and World No. 8 Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus became the first big seed to crash out of the tournament, losing to Under-21 men’s champion Asuka Sakai of Japan in straight games.