Sreeja turns a corner in the heights of Shillong



Winning her maiden National singles title was a cathartic experience for the 23-year-old paddler. She hopes it kickstarts a successful run in both national and international events

Winning her maiden National singles title was a cathartic experience for the 23-year-old paddler. She hopes it kickstarts a successful run in both national and international events

Shillong is a tourist’s delight. The view of the valleys, the mountains, the dense forest and the clean river beds is breathtaking. Meghalaya’s capital can floor any new visitor.

But for the paddlers who had assembled for the Senior National table tennis championships in the ‘Scotland of the East’, situated almost 5,000 feet above sea level, the manner in which the ball travelled during a rally was not pleasant. “The ball floats here,” observed 10-time National champion Sharath Kamal, “making it difficult to play”.

The challenging conditions at the SAI Indoor Stadium, situated in the spacious North-Eastern Hill University, enhanced Akula Sreeja’s achievement: a breakthrough triumph, a maiden National title.

What’s more, the 23-year-old from Telangana was not tipped to win the women’s singles crown. Seeded third, a semifinal appearance — like in the previous edition — was par for the course.

Conditions not easy

“The conditions weren’t easy,” admitted Sreeja, but she enjoyed the natural settings. “From my room, the view was beautiful. The view of the mountains and forest was really great,” she said.

Winning the Nationals was a cathartic experience for Sreeja. At previous National championships, be it sub-junior, junior or youth, pressure inevitably got the better of her.

“I had the feeling that the world was falling on me,” she said, describing how she felt when she had competed in other Nationals.

This time, she was prepared both mentally and physically, thanks to Dream Sports Foundation, which arranged for her to work with a psychologist and funded her travel.

Now she is smiling and enjoying the adulation, but there was a time in her life when the results weren’t coming; she felt she was at a crossroads.

“It was frustrating,” Sreeja said. “I was losing in the pre-quarterfinals in the youth section. I was No. 2 in youth in 2016-17. The same year I reached the final of the Central Zone tournament in Baroda, losing to Sutirtha Mukherjee. On the way, I defeated players such as Manika Batra, Madhurika Patkar and Mousumi Paul and finished in the top 10 in women and No. 1 in youth. But I was not sure where I stood.”

Sense of security

For Indian athletes, however great their accomplishments, a permanent job gives a sense of security. “It was after I got a job in the Reserve Bank of India in 2017 that I became confident. It was a big thing in my life. Everybody in my family and my relatives were relieved. Finally, they all felt I was settled in life,” she said.

After her semifinal exit in the 2020 Nationals in Haryana, Sreeja put in the hard yards and prepared a tough and rigorous schedule with Somnath Ghosh, her long-time coach, for the Shillong event.

Fortune, too, helped her. The ouster of top seed and reigning Commonwealth Games singles champion Manika Batra in the top half of the draw cleared the path for Sreeja.

The most impressive aspect of Sreeja’s triumph was that she lost a total of just six games in six matches, which says a lot about her domination.

With long-pimpled rubber on the backhand side, Sreeja does well to block and nullify her opponent’s attacking shots; she uses it equally well to push, caress and place the ball suitably.

With the more commonly used inverted rubber on the forehand, Sreeja is a relentless attacker, giving it the flourish and the backlift it requires.

In the semifinal against Ayhika Mukherjee, the slayer of Manika, Sreeja employed the waiting game to perfection, getting the better of an opponent with a similar style and rubber.

In conditions where the ball travels rather slowly, the player who finds the right position to attack has a head start. Sreeja, on that score, was spot-on. Although she defended really well, thanks to her ‘funny’ backhand rubber, she never flinched from the challenge of attacking, when given the opportunity.

In the summit clash against 4’10” Mouma Das — a five-time National champion making a return to the sport at the age of 38, after three years away — Sreeja wasn’t flustered one bit. Whenever Mouma unleashed her famous forehand ‘flat shot’, Sreeja defused it with her backhand.

Somnath, who has been Sreeja’s coach for the last 15 years, has effected a major change in her approach to the game — something he began to perceive during the Dehradun tournament in 2021. “Earlier, when I scolded her for a wrong shot, she would go into a shell. In the Dehradun tournament, she was confident and whenever I got upset, she used to tell me, ‘I’ll take care’.”

Sreeja trains at the Ultimate Table Tennis-Somnath Ghosh TT Academy in Hyderabad, alongside a host of top Indian players including S.F.R. Snehit, Sourav Saha, Anukram Jain and Prapti Sen. Although an integral part of Sreeja’s development, Somnath shares the credit around.

“I believe it is not only because of me or Sreeja,” he said. “The success was possible only because of teamwork… a lot of people, including coach Sandeep Gupta. We went to train in his academy in Delhi before the Shillong Nationals — he is a specialist in training paddlers with long pimples.

“And we were in Chennai for a brief time when Sharath Kamal arranged for a camp and we got to spar with a variety of players. Also, a special thanks to fitness trainer Hirak Bagchi.

“And also, if not for the support of K.T. Rama Rao, IT Minister of the Telangana Government, and Amarnath Reddy, chief relations officer in the IT Ministry, I wouldn’t have been able to produce paddlers such as Sreeja.”

Sreeja’s improved confidence and composure were evident in Shillong, where she decided to change her rubber after the pre-quarterfinals.

“She played with the rubber Spin Lord in the pre-quarters on her backhand and from quarters till the final, she played with Tibhar Grass. I thought that was gutsy and speaks volumes of her mental stability. A huge change in her mindset, which was fantastic,” he said.

Somnath says Sreeja’s forehand top-spin, her biggest strength, has sometimes been a bugbear as well, becoming a source of unforced errors. “I told her to tighten her arms at the time of the ball brushing the racquet. She started to believe in the process and became more confident of her forehand and became more consistent, too,” he said.

Fine with long pimples

For a brief period, Sreeja wasn’t fully convinced about long-pimpled rubber but Manika’s success altered her opinion. “She was of the impression that long pimples won’t make a big change. After the success of Manika, everything changed,” said Somnath.

Somnath said, however, that Sreeja needed to flip her racquet mid-rally, much like Manika does, to throw opponents off with the change of rubber if she wants to excel on the international stage. “She has to do that more often. She does it now only when she is leading,” said Somnath. She will have an opportunity to work on it in September — she is set to play for a top-division club in Zagreb.

On the horizon for Sreeja, the top-ranked woman on the domestic circuit, is the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, where she thinks India can retain its women’s team gold.

“I think I can reach the semifinals in singles at CWG and remain India No. 1 for a few more years,” she said. Another goal, according to Somnath, is to enter the world’s top 50 — she is No. 68 currently — by 2023.

Whatever she goes on to achieve, the Shillong Nationals and the city’s pristine settings will remain etched in Sreeja’s memory. She hopes it’s the first of many titles, an important step on the journey of realising her ambitions in both national and international competitions.


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *