The Rao Brothers are synonymous with table tennis in Chennai. Prince Frederick shoots the breeze with Srinivasa and Muralidhara

All of five years, Prasanna takes on a table tennis robot. The machine sways to and fro and spews out orange balls in quick succession, and the boy is unable to match its pace. Instead of reducing the robot's speed of delivery, 54-year-old A. Muralidhara Rao steps up to the table, holds the boy's hand and helps him counter-smash the fast-moving balls. Muralidhara explains, “The easiest route never leads to laurels.” His elder brother A. Srinivasa Rao (57) nods in agreement.

The ‘Rao brothers' — as they are known in table tennis circles — are themselves an illustration of this principle. Hailing from an obscure town in Andhra Pradesh, they learnt to play table tennis without any coaching assistance and reached a level of distinction, switched to coaching while still young enough to continue as players, persisted despite a lack of demand for TT coaching and finally erected a premier TT coaching school, the SDAT-AKG Table Tennis Development Centre.

In a joint career spanning about 30 years, the Rao brothers have consistently produced champion players. The list of protégés includes Sharath Kamal (who is Srinivasa Rao's eldest son), Chetan Baboor, S. Raman, N. Ravichandran, K.R. Sharad, M.S. Mythili, B. Bhuvaneswari, N. Arulselvi, T. Pradeepa and K. Shamini.

Various qualities have contributed to their success, but the Rao brothers name team work as foremost among them. “My brother and I have contrasting temperaments, but we think alike on important issues. After watching matches involving our wards, we will invariably come up with same observations,” says Muralidhara. “From the early years, we have seen ourselves as a strong unit. Before guiding a player, we decide who will be best for the job. While I tend to be more forceful in telling the trainees what they ought to do, Srinivasa takes a softer approach. When it is time to enforce discipline in unequivocal terms, I step in. When we are dealing with a trainee who is painfully sensitive to strong criticism, he handles him. Certain technical areas are under my purview and the others are handled by him. For example, I decide on the rubbers for each player. For Bhuvaneswari, I made a radical change in the rubbers. While many warned me against the decision, Srinivasa went with me. The fact that the gambit paid off was a joint victory for us.”

This understanding stems from the fact that both their lives have shaped up along similar lines: they began to play table tennis together in 1971, both entered Central Government departments on sports quota and both warmed up to the idea of turning coaches. When they took the plunge in 1982 — the year Srinivasa completed his NIS training from Patiala — they appeared to be turning back on the prospect of ascending the ladder as players. In hindsight, it was a great decision.

For the first two years, they served as peripatetic coaches, taking up assignments at YMCA and other places. In 1984, they received a call from Santhome Club (attached to the Santhome School) and the four-year stint that followed helped them build their coaching reputation. At the club, they were putting Baboor, Raman, Mythili, Bhuvaneswari and many other talented youngsters through their paces. “In 1987-1988, Santhome Sports Club held 28 rankings out of 48, across categories,” says Muralidhara.

In 1988, they had to shift their base to YMIA but the change did not disrupt their successful run. “We've been going from strength to strength. Having to deal with different kinds of players, we only get better at our job. These players teach us valuable lessons. We have seen players with incredible talent floundering at the topmost level for want of fitness. The careers of some players have taught us the importance of self-belief. Having understood all those things that can go wrong, we work on them from day one,” says Muralidhara.

“We have been particularly hard on Sharath,” say the Rao brothers. “Discipline was drilled into him at an early age.” While the table tennis fraternity has taken note of the consistent results produced by the Rao brothers, Sharath's success at the international level has been their crowning glory.

In 2005, they felt rewarded when the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu decided to allot space for them in its facility adjoining the Nehru Stadium. Today, the SDAT-AKG centre has what is one of the best table tennis facilities in the country — 20 tables, three robots, synthetic flooring and six coaches.

While the Rao brothers are pleased with this progress, their greatest joy lies in the fact that the juniors in the family have taken to the sport. Srinivasa's second son played competitive table tennis until he suffered a shoulder injury. “He is now working in the field of sports mechanics and has served as analyst at many top table tennis tournaments. At the Centre, Rajath helps us with his expertise,” says Srinivasa.

Muralidhara's eldest son Kamal Teja is one of the top players among the juniors in the State. His second son Rohit — a Class X student — is also passionate about the sport. “For some reason, the trainees at the Centre have nicknamed Rohit, Chief Coach.”

Probably an indication that the family is capable of producing a succession of ‘Rao brothers'.

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