Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Indian table tennis players will soon break into top-20, says ace paddler Achanta Sharath Kamal

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Achanta Sharath Kamal has been a flag-bearer of Indian men’s table tennis for quite some time now.

The country’s highest ranked paddler (the only Indian in the top-100 with a world ranking of 70) will be spearheading the billion hopes in the upcoming 19th Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships, which is scheduled to be held in New Delhi from May 5-9.

The 30-year-old from Tamil Nadu has happy memories in the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships – having won the men’s singles gold in its 16th edition in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Sharath, who once attained a world ranking of 39, also won the singles gold in the 2006 Commonwealth Games held in Melbourne.

Happily married and father of a two-year-old daughter, the Indian Oil deputy manager speaks in an exclusive interview.


Tell us a bit about your early days in table tennis?
In my initial years, I was coached by my father, Srinivasa Rao and uncle, Muralidhara Rao. Both of them started their coaching career even before I was born. I used to accompany my father to the club since the age of two. I started playing the sport since the age of five.

When did you really make it big in the domestic circuit?
I got an opportunity to participate in the national training camp in 2002, and ever since I haven’t looked back as in the same year I reached the National Championships singles final.

Can you throw some light on your first international tournament as a singles player?
I made my junior international debut in the 2000 Junior Asian Championships, while my senior international debut happened at Bangkok in 2003. At the Bangkok event, I won all my matches in the team championships and lost in the qualifying round of the singles.

You won the 16th Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship gold in Kuala Lumpur in 2004 – the same year you got the Arjuna Award. Could you recall those memories for us?
2003 and 2004 are memorable years for me – I won the national singles crown for the first time in 2003 and became India’s No.1 and continued my improved form in 2004 by winning the Commonwealth Championships (becoming the first Indian to win that title). We also won the teams’ title and then I qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games 2004. So 2004 was a big year for me and I was awarded the Arjuna award for my efforts in August 2005. Gradually from winning national-level tournaments, I also started winning in the international circuit.

How would you rate your gold-winning effort at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, when you beat crowd favourite Australian William Henzell in the final?
I always cherish the memories of my 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games gold-winning effort. The title win gave me a lot of recognition in table tennis circles. People started to recognize me as the guy with the bandana and long hair. The final was breathtaking as I won a close seven setter where William Henzel was giving me a run for his money. Both of us were in very good shape, we beat a lot of good players in the earlier rounds; he had a little edge playing in front of his home crowd. I was surprised to see a lot of Indians in the crowd. It was the last day of the Games, and many other sportspersons from the Indian contingent were also there.

You had a club stint in Spain for a club called San Sebastian de los Reyes till 2009. Can you tell us a bit about it?
After I won the gold in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, lot of European clubs noticed me. I started getting some offers to play in the European club leagues. I accepted such an offer to play in Spain and continued to play for them for four seasons. The Spanish league was competitive but by the end of my fourth year the financial situation was going bad and I shifted to Germany where I had a wonderful stint, which helped to establish myself in the German league as well.

You won the US Open table tennis men’s championships held at Grand Rapids, Michigan in July 2010. You beat the defending champion Thomas Keinath of Slovakia in an absorbing tussle. Your memories.
2010 was a tremendous year in my career, winning back-to-back international titles, reaching a world ranking of 39 winning the Commonwealth Games gold medal. The US open was an important title and it wasn’t a easy win at all. I was stretched to the limit by Keinath Thomas where I clawed my way back from 1-3 down and went on to win with the minimal difference of 2 points in the last set.

I hit a purple patch during that period, starting with the Indian Open where I reached the semifinals, then I won the US Open and followed up winning the Egypt Open.

You played in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics but failed to make the cut for the 2012 Olympics. How would you sum up your Olympic experience?
Playing in the Olympics is any sportsperson’s dream and it was not any different for me. Although I missed out on the London Olympics, I’m hoping to end my Olympic experience with a medal in my bag. My first Olympics was like Alice in Wonderland – I was watching sports celebrities dine with me, travel with me, relax with me, workout with me and all of this just left me feeling a new high. I had specially prepared for the Beijing Olympics, reached the third round and lost narrowly to Chen Wexing of Austria. I’m upbeat about qualifying for the 2006 Rio Olympics; hopefully I will bring home a medal.

You are 30 now. Would you take another shot at the Olympics?
Yes of course, I would like to win a medal and I’m working hard towards achieving that.

You have won the national crown six times. Which has been the most cherished?
I cherish all the six wins – winning a national crown is always special

What kind of rivalry you share with Soumyajit Ghosh – somebody who looks up to you for your guidance?
The rivalry is on table but off the table I’m his well-wisher and a senior, who looks to guide him. That’s my principle towards younger players. This is in turn, makes me prepare hard too.

Why are Indian table tennis players not being able to break into the top-20?
The day is not far and we will do it soon. Not just one player but a bunch of them. We are getting better (working towards getting better) and it is only a matter of time.

How many years of competitive table tennis Sharath Kamal has left in his tank?
I haven’t really thought about it as right now, my aim is to play in the 2016 Rio Olympics, I will take it from there.

Who is your favourite table tennis player?
Belarusian Vladimir Samsonov makes me feel that table tennis is an easy sport to play. The grace and ease he has to table tennis is just fantastic.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Yonex Sunrise Indian Open a massive opportunity for inconsistent Indian shutters

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

The first few months of 2013 have been a roller-coaster ride for the Indian shuttlers. Starting with badminton icon Saina Nehwal to Parupalli Kashyap, the performances of the country’s shuttlers have left a lot to be desired.

Saina, who capped a dream year in 2012 scooping up four major tournaments – two Super Series events (Indonesian Open and Denmark Open) and two Grand Prix Gold events (Thailand Open and Swiss Open) besides cornering a Olympic bronze at the London Games – has failed to make the final of all the four tournaments she featured in this year.

Her earliest exit came in the Victor Korean Open when she was shown the championship exit door in the quarterfinals by China’s Li Han in three games – a loss that must have disappointed her considering the fact that it was a Super Series Premier event.

The Hyderabad lass let her fans down once again in the Maybank Malaysian Open where she bowed out in the semi-finals, capitulating to Tzu Ying Tai of Chinese Taipe in straight games – another disappointment in a Super Series event.

Saina showed signs of getting to her best in the All England Championship – Super Series Premier event – where she ousted China’s Wang Shixian in a tense game in the quarterfinals.

But she only flattered to deceive in the semis losing to Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon. Her sequence of below-par displays continued when she lost in the semifinals of the Swiss Open – a Grand Prix Gold event – losing to Shixian Wang, who exacted revenge for her defeat at the All England Championships.

Saina’s fellow countrywoman PV Sindhu also has had a sedate run so far.

The gangling youngster has had two second round finishes at the Victor Korean Open and All England Championships, as her best this year, which is hugely disappointing considering the immense potential she possesses.

Sindhu will need to up her ante if she has to stay in the top-20.

However, Arundhati Pantawane, ranked in the nineties, made it to the semifinals of the Polish Open and so was PC Thulasi. Both these shuttlers otherwise had nothing much to write home about.

Our men’s shuttlers are not lagging behind our women shuttlers in terms of dishing out inconsistent performances. World number seven Parupalli Kashyap did reach the quarterfinals of the All England Championships, where he lost to China’s Long Chen, but by and large he has taken the ‘early exit’ route in all other tourneys this year.

30th ranked Ajay Jayaram hasn’t really lived up to his promise – barring his quarterfinal finish at the New Zealand Open, Jayaram has turned in a downbeat performance despite being seeded in two of the tournaments.

India's Kashyap Parupalli reacts after losing a point to China's Chen Long during their All England Open Badminton Championships men's singles quarter-final match in Birmingham, central England, on March 8, 2013. 

Kashyap Parupalli reacts after losing a point to China’s Chen Long during their All England Open  Championships singles quarter-final in Birmingham, England, on March 8, 2013.

RMV Gurusaidutt is another one who has to do a lot more to vindicate his potential. His best effort has been a third-round finish at the Yonex Australian Open where he lost in the third round to world number one Chong Wei Lee of Malaysia – the bright spot from that match was that the Indian took a game off Lee.

Same applies for Sourabh Varma as well – the MP lad had a slew of early exits – his best effort being a second-round finish at the All England Championships.

Among the pall of disappointment, Anand Pawar made it to the Yonex German Open but cut a downcast show in other events.

Arvind Bhat, who is ranking outside the top-90, sprang a surprise at the New Zealand Open, upsetting sixth seed Andre Kurniawan Tedjono in the third round before biting the dust in the quarterfinals.

The Yonex Sunrise Indian Open presents a massive opportunity for the Indian shuttlers to redeem themselves and turn in a power-packed performance. And playing in front of their home fans should be an added motivation to make the country proud.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Meet Rajeev Ganpule, the first Indian coach to clear the World Badminton Federation (WBF) Level 1 Coaching Course

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Coaches put in the hard yards behind the scenes and seldom grab the spotlight. Rajeev Ganpule is one those self-effacing coaches, who lets his coaching attributes do the talking. The former national-level shuttler is in seventh heaven after he became the first Indian to clear the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) Level 1 coaching education course held at Male, Maldives last year.

“I’m happy to clear the WBF Level 1 coaching course. Being the first Indian to clear the course gives me huge satisfaction,” Ganpule says in an exclusive interview.

The 49-year-old Mumbai-based coach was the lone Indian to take the Level 1 coaching education course. “The World Badminton Federation (WBF) invited applications for the said course from across the globe. The Badminton Association of India (BAI) invited applications from all state associations and our national body nominated me for this prestigious examination, which was conducted by the world governing body in Maldives last year,” he says.

Ganpule, who is also the executive secretary of the Maharashtra Badminton Association (MBA), shed light on the Level 1 coaching education course. “Well, the course was an eleven-day affair. Around 14 coaches took this course. We used to have theory classes from 10 am to 2 pm, which also featured PPT presentations by the World Badminton Federation. We used to have practical classes from 6 pm to 9 pm. Former Malaysian international and current New Zealand badminton coach Thanabalan Arikrishnan was the World Badminton Federation (WBF) tutor for this coaching course.”

Ganpule has no doubts that the course would stand him in good stead for the future. “WBF tutor Thanabalan Arikrishnan assessed my expertise and felt that I was pretty comfortable conducting all three levels of coaching – basic, intermediate and advanced. Definitely, I was richer with this experience,” he quips.

Going forward, the seasoned coach sees overseas coaching opportunities in future. “We were asked whether we were keen to take up coaching assignments overseas. I expressed my keenness to explore such opportunities.”

Ganpule now wants to share his experiences with other Indian coaches. “I’m not just happy to be the first Indian to clear this course. I want to share my experiences (Maldives stint) with other coaches so that it can benefit them. I would love to see more Indian coaches clear this course in future,” he asserts.

The 1983 Mumbai University men’s singles runners-up feels that coaching is lucrative if one has the desired skill sets. “A good coach can rake in the moolah. If you carve out a good reputation, money should not be an issue,” he assures.

Ganpule, who runs the Yen Badminton Academy in Mumbai, touched a pertinent point when he talked about the need for high quality grasroot-level coaching. “Look, in India, there is a crying need for decent basic-level coaching. We lack proper basic-level coaching across the country. Even if we have, the quality is not there. But for advanced-level coaching, there are no such concerns as former players like Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand and Uday Pawar are doing a wonderful job.”

The Maharashtra Badminton Association official harbours hopes of coaching in India. “Coaching is booming in India. Lot of international schools and luxury societies are setting up badminton courts, which effectively means that coaches will always be in demand,” he reasons.

Sports runs in the Ganpule family. He runs a sports goods shop ‘Ganpule Sports’ in Mumbai. “It’s a family business which we run in two places – Thane and Mulund,” he signs off.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I want to be in top-100 by 2013-end, says India's highest ranked singles player Somdev Devvarman

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Indian tennis has produced greats like Ramanathan Krishnan, Jaideep Mukherjee, Premjit Lal ,Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. And one man who is determined to fill in their big shoes or at least come anywhere close to them, is Somdev Devvarman.

Injuries have played a big part in derailing his tennis career to some extent. A nagging shoulder injury put him out of action for most part of 2012.

The 2013 has been quite challenging for Somdev, who recently rubbed shoulders with world number one Novak Djokovic of Serbia in the third round of the ATP Miami Masters. He shares his experiences about playing the world number one and much more in an exclusive interview.

You played a big part in India’s 5-0 rout of Indonesia, in the recent Asia-Oceania relegation play-off tie. You must be delighted with the team’s impressive win and also with the fact that the team was back at full strength?
Winning for India is always special, and winning the tie 5-0 made it even better! It was great week with the boys, hanging out and practising with them.

Indian tennis has been courting controversy in recent months, beginning with the players’ revolt which led to India fielding a second-string side against Korea, against whom we lost tamely. Do you, in hindsight, think that the players’ pull-out was imperative to send the message across that they can’t be taken for granted?
Not playing that tie against Korea wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly. We all love representing India and take great pride in it. But we felt like the players’ concerns were not being addressed and pulling out of that tie was something we had to do for us to be heard.

Players’ associations are often looked as ‘unwelcome groups’ by the parent body. Do you think that the formation of the Indian Tennis Players Association (ITPA) will be warmly received by AITA or will it be able to achieve its desired objectives?
I hope that it will be received warmly. We want to help improve the development and growth of tennis in India, and working together towards this would be extremely beneficial.

You had an injury-ravaged 2012 where you missed the first half and only played in a few tournaments in the latter part of the year. How serious was your shoulder injury?
It was a pretty serious injury. I had to undergo surgery and had a long period of recovery and rehab. The injury kept me off the court and out of competitive tennis for over 9 months.

Injuries are part and parcel of a sportsperson’s life. How frustrating it is to sit on the sidelines, missing tournaments one after another?
It’s something you come to terms with after a while. It is quite frustrating to not be able to play but looking at the bigger picture, I guess it’s more important to stay healthy and not take unnecessary risks.

You reached a career high singles ranking of 62 in July 2011. You finished 2012 at 664 but you have moved up to 205 since then. Where do you want to be by 2013-end?
I’d like to be in the top 100 by the end of 2013. I’m sure if I play well and win some good competitive matches, the ranking will take care of itself.

You had a decent run at the 2013 Miami Masters, where you lost to world number one Novak Djokovic in the third round. Share us your experiences of playing the Serb.
It’s a confidence booster to play the top guys. And you also learn a lot – about your own weaknesses and strengths, and which part of your game needs work.

You reached the 4th round of the 2011 BNP Paribas Open, where you upset world no. 22 Marcos Baghdatis in second round, stunned world no. 52 Xavier Malisse  in the third round before losing to Rafael Nadal in the fourth. Would you rate this tournament as one of the special moments of your singles career since the time you turned pro in 2008?
It was definitely a great tournament for me and again, playing Rafa was special.

Indian tennis is going through transition. With the careers of Lee-Hesh coming to an end, you have enormous responsibility to spearhead the India’s next generation of tennis players. Your thoughts?
The next generation of Indian tennis players are a bunch of great guys. They’re hard working and hungry to do well. I’m of course always there to provide any kind of support and assistance that I can, but I think they’ll get by absolutely fine without me.

Is there any systematic problem that India is struggling to produce quality men’s singles players Vijay Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan among others?
I don’t think there’s a systematic problem. There is room for improvement and hopefully we’ll all work on that together.

Which are the areas you need to work on in order to develop your game further?
Working on my game is a constant, on-going process.

Who are your favourite men’s and women’s tennis players and why?
My favourite men’s player is Roger Federer and women’s is probably Steffi Graf. They’re great icons of the sport. The way they conduct themselves on and off the court, their dedication to the game and the hard work they put in, I think they’re inspirational.

What are the other things you do when you are not playing tennis?
I hang out with friends, watch movies, read, play and listen to music; do things to unwind.

What will be your message to the upcoming Indian youngsters who have taken up tennis?
Be persistent. It’s a tough sport, and it takes a lot of mental and physical strength.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Staging comeback after injury is never easy, says Indian hockey forward Dharamvir Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

Considered one of the most talented forwards to emerge in recent times, Dharamvir Singh brings plenty of positive energy and impetus to the Indian forward line.

The 22-year-old Ropar-born youngster was in fine form in the 22nd Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia. Although he did not make the scoresheet, his contributions didn’t go unnoticed.

At the Hero Hockey World League Round 2 tournament, ‘Dharma’, as he is known by his team-mates, was in full cry, scoring in every match of the event. He scored a crucial match-winner against Ireland, which helped India edge out their opponents 3-2.

“I was pretty chuffed with my performance. My match-winner against Ireland gave me a lot of satisfaction as they were threatening to take the match away from us,” Dharamvir says in an exclusive interview.

He attributes his recent improved performance to the productive stint he had in the Hockey India League while turning out for the Jaypee Punjab Warriors. “HIL experience was a big learning curve for me. It has allowed me to work on my finishing. Frankly speaking, I’m a much more confident player now,” he says matter-of-factly.

Dharamvir, who has played 75 internationals and scored 15 goals till date, is a product of the Chandigarh Hockey Academy. “I honed my skills in my formative years under the guidance of late Jaswinder Singh Bajwa. I enrolled myself at the Chandigarh Hockey Academy in 2002 and was there till 2008,” he reminisces.

The son of a farmer, Dharamvir got inspired to take up hockey after seeing his elder brother in action. “My elder brother Kulwinder Singh plays for Army and he was a source of inspiration for me.”

At the junior level, Dharamvir was the player of the tournament in the Four Nations tournament in Singapore in 2006. He later also emerged as the second highest goalscorer in the Six Nations tourney in Malaysia in 2007.

The well-built forward made his senior international debut during the seven-match Test series against Canada in 2009. “I played four out of the seven games. Our coach Jose Brasa tried me out in the midfield position in that series,” he recounts.

The year 2010 was a bit of a mixed bag for Dharamvir. He was not considered for the 2010 World Cup (held in New Delhi) and the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, but was recalled for 2010 Commonwealth Games and 2010 Asian Games.

“I scored three goals in the Commonwealth Games and four in the Asian Games. I was able to prove myself in the team,” he says.

A knee injury derailed Dharamvir’s career, as he was out of competitive action for more than a year, although he stayed in touch with the national team. “I used to attend the camps and do my rehab with the boys, which included body strengthening exercises.”

The Punjab lad staged a comeback to the national side at the 2012 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tournament. “This was my first tournament after the 2010 Asiad,” he quips.

The time spent on the sidelines made him realize how difficult it is to stage a comeback after recovering from an injury. “Staging a comeback after an injury is never easy. So many youngsters arrived in the national side during the time I was laid low by injury. Trust me, I had to work really hard to make a comeback,” he paints a realistic picture.

He, however, likes the cut-throat competition in the Indian team. “It’s good for the team. It ensures no player is complacent. It is heartening to see so many youngsters come through the ranks.”

Dharamvir is also specializing the art of ‘injecting’ penalty corners. He says, “Look, the fate of a penalty corner depends on how well a PC is injected. I have been practising my injection skills for 4-5 years and now feel more at ease executing it.”

Dharamvir, whose favourite hockey players are Jamie Dwyer and Baljit Singh Dhillon, says that the Indian team is focused about qualifying for the Hockey World League semfinals to be held later this year. “We have a good team and will qualify for round 3,” says the Indian right-in, whose favourite goal-tender is Jaap Stockmaan of Netherlands. “Stockmaan is the most difficult goalkeeper to breach. Even during practise I find it hard to break his defence.”

He does not see any difference in skills between the Indian players and the Europeans or the Aussies. “These countries have solid exposure to astroturfs and their youngsters play on such turfs from an early age. Jaap Stockmaan was telling me they are 600 astroturfs in Netherlands. We just need more astroturfs in India,” he remarks.

He also mentions that he won’t forget one pep talk from Jamie Dwyer in a hurry. “He used to tell us never to give up till the final hooter is blown even if we are on the verge of losing a match,” he signs off.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

HIL experience benefited me hugely, says India's talented young forward Malak Singh

This piece was published in Sportskeeda

A plethora of youngsters have donned the senior national team jersey after the disastrous wooden spoon finish at last year’s London Olympics. Indian team chief coach Michael Nobbs has laid high emphasis on blooding youngsters in a bid to build a solid team for the future.

The FIH 34th Champions Trophy, 2nd Asian Champions Trophy, Hockey World League Round 2 Tournament and the 22nd Sultan Azlan Shah Cup Tournament saw Nobbs induct many youngsters – most of whom have come through the junior ranks.

Malak Singh is one of those youngsters who has made all and sundry sit up and take notice of him. The young forward made a big impression on his senior international debut in the Hero Hockey World League Round 2 tournament against unfancied Fiji, scoring two second half goals in India’s big 16-0 triumph.

As a mark of encouragement for his debut match, Hockey India awarded him Rs 1 lakh. “It was my first senior international debut; I was so happy to score two goals for my team – an effort for which Hockey India gave me a cash reward,” Malak says in an exclusive interview.

Malak turned in an outstanding performance, with his aggressive runs down the flanks, slick passing and decent finishing. It is always said that one man’s loss is another man’s gain. That was precisely the case with Malak. The diminutive forward was only a standby for the 22nd Sultan Azlan Shah Cup Tournament and only made it to the team after regular forward Gurwinder Singh Chandi failed to recover from his ankle ligament injury. “I came into the side in place of Chandi. Having enjoyed a decent outing in the Hockey World League Round 2 tournament, I was raring to fare well in the 22nd Sultan Azlan Shah Cup Tournament,” he gushes.

Malak, who hails from the Sirsa district of Haryana, capped off a memorable tournament in Ipoh, rattling the opposition cage thrice. “Obviously it feels good to score goals against top sides. I scored the third goal against Australia and Pakistan, while the goal I scored against Korea was set up brilliantly by Mandeep Singh,” the Western Railways employee recalls fondly.

Malak is, however, clear that merely scoring goals is not always his cup of tea. “As a forward, my job is to score goals. At the same time, I focus hard on essaying accurate passes and making timely tackles as these aspects can change the outcome of a match,” he reasons.

The 20-year-old honed his hockey skills at the Namdhari Sports Academy, Ludhiana, where he had a seven-year stint (2005-11). “I learnt my hockey lessons under Olympian Didar Singh, who did the coaching under the supervision of Thakur Udai Singh.”

Malak made his junior international debut at the 2011 Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia, where he scored 4 goals. “The junior debut was a good one for me. I scored two goals in our 4-6 defeat to Korea – a match where we led Korea 4-0 at half-time before they scored six times in the second half. Then, I scored both the goals against New Zealand whom we beat 2-1,” he reels out facts excitedly.

The youngster has no doubts that his self-belief has gone up hugely after his stint in the Hockey India League. “The experience of playing in the HIL really enhanced my self-belief. The HIL stint made me feel more at ease while playing in the senior team in the Hockey World League and the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup,” he quips.

Malak, who turned out for Jaypee Punjab Warriors in the HIL, says he richly benefited playing alongside a legend like Jamie Dwyer. “I heard of Jamie Dwyer as a big player. So, it felt really good to play alongside a legend like me. His pep talk were always motivating for us.”

The youngster is confident of India faring well in the Hockey World League semifinals slated to be held in Rotterdam, the Netheralands this June. “We have a talented side. We would work hard at our upcoming camp, starting in Bengaluru from April 6th.  We are upbeat about qualifying for HWL Round 3,” he signs off on a bullish note.