In August 2008, two 18-year-old girls shared a room in the Olympic village in Beijing, their maiden Olympic Games. Neha Aggarwal, India's best table tennis player, was excited just to be part of the event. On the other end of the intensity spectrum was Saina Nehwal. "She would get up before me to train and get to bed before me. She didn't go to the opening ceremony because she wanted to get up and train early the next day. She didn't just want to go to the Olympics. Her target was to get to the semifinals. When she lost in the quarters I remember how upset she was. I was just hoping to advance from the preliminary stage," Aggarwal recalls. "That was when it hit me what the gulf between our sports really was."
Nine years later, Aggarwal has changed jobs. She will serve as a TV anchor for the India Open in Delhi, the main draw of which begins on Thursday. India's best representative is World No. 62 Achanta Sharath Kamal, seeded 11th. His only title on the ITTF world tour came in Egypt in 2010. G Sathiyan, who made it to the main draw in Delhi, has also won on the world tour but his victory was in a Challenge meet, the third tier of competition, in Belgium. The gulf Aggarwal spoke of seems as wide as ever.
There are parallels to be drawn between table tennis and badminton, both of which are recreational sports whose popularity other Olympic events can only dream of. The Indian cricket team is known to indulge in both. In the 1980s, both sports occupied similar spaces in the public consciousness. While it never had players like Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, who would win iconic tournaments like the All England Championships, Indian table tennis players like Kamlesh Mehta, Manjit Dua, Indu Puri and, later in the 1990s, Chetan Baboor, had beaten Olympic and world champions.
Badminton's graph has since streaked ahead. The sport has had two Olympic medalists and four singles players ranked in the top ten. Badminton players feature regularly in the final of Super Series events, the sport's biggest tournaments. In comparison, table tennis's results have been anaemic.
The comparison is also perhaps a case of apples and oranges. "The number of countries that play table tennis is far more than badminton. Badminton is essentially an Asian sport with some countries from Europe playing it. In table tennis, you have greater European participation along with players from countries in Africa and South America. And because there are so many Chinese players who continue to play even after they emigrate even the small countries can be very competitive," Aggarwal says.
Massimo Constantini, the Indian team's foreign coach, says the nature of table tennis makes it harder. "The margin for error is minute. The nature of spin is far more pronounced in table tennis. What separates players is the understanding of spin. The best players in the world can read how, and how much, the ball is turning. Handling the additional variable of spin, along with being quick and powerful, is something you learn only through experience. The players ranked in the top five might as well be playing a different game," he says. Additionally, the lack of consistency in coaching is another factor that has contributed to Indian players' relative inability to handle spin.
While India has improved, the implication is that players in the top five are at an incredibly consistent level. "The players in the top five are a cut above the rest. From rank 20 onwards, it can be anyone's game" Sharath says.
Constantini's assessment shines new light on the achievements of Mehta and Baboor two decades ago. But India wasn't able to build on their feats, partly due to systemic challenges. "We don't have a structure in place. I've been part of the national camp for 15 years and I've had nine coaches in that time. There's very little continuity," says Sharath. Aggarwal concurs. "When I played, I would have a national coach who told me something and my personal coach would tell me something else. It's not like you have one Gopichand and everyone follows that lead," she says.
Even when the sport appears to turn a corner - such as at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where the doubles pair of Sharath and Subhajit Saha upset the higher-ranked Singapore duo of Gao Ning and Yang Zi - the coach, Constantini, was booted out the following year, only to be brought back last year.
Constantini believes the problem lies at the intermediate and higher levels. "When I go to a state-level tournament, I will see hundreds of school children playing with almost no space between tables. There are many countries in Europe who would dream of having these numbers. In my opinion, India has immense talent but it is unable to exploit it," he says.
Players break through by luck or their own efforts rather than as a result of a plan, according to Sharath. "If you assume each generation is a five-year gap, we have a good player coming up only every couple of generations. We don't have a system to produce high-class talent. After Kamlesh Mehta it took ten years for us to find a Chetan Baboor. I am eight years younger than him. The next set of players we have are Soumyajit Ghosh and G Sathiyan, who are about 24. And now we have Manav Thakkar, who is 17. It's not good when you have such an age gap between players. You start overly respecting them instead of seeing them as a rival and competitor. You don't push them or yourself," he says.
As a result, the sport has been plagued by a lack of self-belief among players. A few years ago, a member of the junior team, now one of India's top men's singles player, laughed even as he dismissed the possibility of beating a player from Japan. "Frankly, I never considered the possibility of beating a World Number 1. If anyone had said this back then, I would also have laughed," says Aggarwal. One of the factors Sharath credits in his rise (he was once ranked 39th six years ago) was the decision he made, much like Baboor, to train and compete in Germany, away from a permeating atmosphere of self- doubt.
Table tennis faces the difficult task of breaking a vicious cycle of poor results and low expectations. "From my understanding, table tennis has a marketing problem. When we approached the TV broadcasters, we were told there isn't an audience for it. But that was because they hadn't even tried," says Vita Dani, chairperson of 11Even Sports, organiser of the India Open. The company, which signed a 10-year-contract with the TTFI (Table Tennis Federation of India) in 2015, is also planning an IPL-style table tennis league in July. "There is no reason this sport shouldn't do well. This is an incredibly popular sport in India. We have to bet on these players. We have to create stars," says Dani, who is also the co-owner of ISL side Chennaiyin FC.
While such a league might grab eyeballs, it is not going to be the silver bullet that revives table tennis. The sport needs a coaches program, a systematic domestic calendar and consistent international exposure. Dani, whose son Mudit was a national level player, says these are all gaps she intends to plug.
There are signs of hope. Last year, the Indian men's and women's teams both won gold in the second division of the World Table Tennis Team Championships, advancing to the 24-team main draw for the first time. Aggarwal says the latest crop of youngsters is less submissive than their seniors. "When I started playing, my goal was to beat Chetan Baboor's rank of 74, which I achieved. After that I had to chart out a road for myself. The next set of players who come up, will want to do better than World Number 39," says Sharath.
More youngsters, particularly girls who, Aggarwal notes, were hesitant in the past, are willing to travel abroad to improve their game.
Making a change won't be easy, however. "Gopichand didn't create Saina and Sindhu over a year. It will take time. But we think this can happen. And we are in this for the long haul," says Dani.