STATE TIMES NEWS
JAMMU: After having been forced into hibernation for 12 months, the paddlers will look to strike a chord that will trigger a sense of belonging among the players during the UTT 82nd National Table Tennis Championships. The start of the marquee event at the Tau Devi Lal Indoor Stadium here tomorrow has not just ended the question mark hanging over the resumption of sports since Covid-19 but has introduced the exclamation mark instead.The Nationals, however, will witness a few novelties. It will be a singles-only event and held in a bio-secure environment. Sixteen, instead of the usual eight, women players will be seeded directly into the main draw. There will be no team championships or doubles events and, above all, it will be the ladies’ first who will open the proceedings.Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI), enforcing strict SOPs, has limited entries to the bare minimum. With just 12 tables in use throughout, it takes care of the safety paraphernalia-24 players in the fray with 24 coaches for advice and 24 officials to supervise the qualification matches. The competition department will allow the other participants in the gallery subject to maintaining the stipulated social distance.On the eve of the championships, only the players with negative RT-PCR test results could gain entry into the hall for half an hour of practice each, including every morning on match-days. With the support of the Haryana government, the test results reach the venue in just four hours. It arguably reduces the players’ tension before the tournament.As for the entries, 161 women, including six wildcards, will set the ball rolling in the championships. The 145 players, minus the 16 seeds, have been drawn into 48 groups, each comprising three players. The last group, however, will have four paddlers.The attraction of the women’s affair will undoubtedly be Manika Batra. The winner of double gold medals at the 2018 CWG and the Asian Games bronze medallist should thank her stars for being the top Indian woman paddler in the world at No. 63. She will be the top seed of the tournament despite not figuring among the top 16 Indians. Manika skipped the entire season in 2019, save for the Institutional Championships that she went on to win. That saved the day and redeemed her position somewhat. The 25-year-old will have to dust off the rust because of inactivity last year and return to her best form. She confirmed to TTFI Media that she had been preparing for the championships at Pune with her coach and sparring partner from Belarus. “I feel really in good shape and look forward to the Nationals,” she said. But all prying eyes will be on her performance and that of the rest of women paddlers for the next four days. Sutirtha Mukherjee, the reigning champion from Haryana, and her predecessor Archana Girish Kamath, who is turning out for Karnataka as a senior pro for the first time, will be in the race for the coveted title and the top prize of Rs. 1.65 lakh.The Nationals here will provide them with a chance for introspection, prepare mentally for the crucial WTT Contenders in Doha, and more importantly, the Tokyo qualification events soon after. Hence, nobody can afford to take the Nationals lightly. Former national champion K. Shamini or, for that matter, other wildcards like Anusha Kutumbale, Harshavardhni and Swastika Ghosh may not pose a big challenge for the title contenders. But one can’t ignore the presence of Madhurika Patkar, also a former national champion.All of these will come into the reckoning and would eventually make the contests bold and beautiful. The women’s singles final is on February 18 and, a day after, the men singles resume.“We will use DHS DJ 40+ balls during the tournament, the same as during the Asian Qualification event in Doha and the Tokyo Olympics,” said Competition Manager N. Ganeshan. C.L. Thade, the experienced referee, will be in charge of the tournament with support from deputy Atul Dubey and 45 technical hands.Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar will inaugurate the championships formally at 5:00 PM tomorrow.
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