Treading cautiously yet optimistically, India's table tennis players are eyeing Commonwealth Games medals knowing well that only their very best will do the trick in the coming fortnight.
Foreign coach Massimo Costantini and chief coach Bhawani Mukherjee have worked tirelessly with the team over the past 18 months and are aware of the team's medal-winning capabilities when the competition begins on October 4. In the last edition, India won the men's team gold and women's team bronze before Sharath Kamal provided the icing on the cake by adding the men's singles title.
This year, the presence of a strong Singapore team, comprising former China players, mainly Gao Ning, is a worry for the Indian team. Among the ladies, India is seeded among the top four teams, the other three being, Singapore, Australia and England.
Sharath Kamal, ranked 41 in the world, is an obvious medal favourite in both the team and individual sections. Medals can also be expected from the women's team event, men's doubles and mixed doubles. If the luck of the draw favours the Indian pair, then a women's doubles medal cannot be ruled out.
The only event, where the Indians are not pinning much hopes, is the women's singles. And this is due to the fact that there will be five Singapore girls in the draw, at least one in each quarter.
In the 2009 Commonwealth championship at Glasgow in May, India won a gold (men's doubles), two silver (men's team and men's singles) and four bronze medals (women's team, men's singles, women's singles and mixed doubles).
Since then, the team has got all the training and exposure the think-tank asked for. The rankings of almost all the players have risen and the factor of playing at home should enhance the prospects of India's best medal haul in the Games.
Costantini has a clear plan for the men's team. “I want to use the first stage (league) of the championship to give confidence to every player. All should be available for the next stage where anyone could be dropped. If a player doesn't perform to expectations in the league, he should be prepared to make way for an in-form player. We can't depend on just one or two players. Everyone has trained very hard and is capable of performing at a higher level than what they have performed so far.”
“In the knockout stage, we will put up our best performing players. In both sections, we are expected to top our group and then play the second-placed team from one of the other groups. It could be a tricky situation, so we won't take any chances. For instance, the Malaysian ladies team might well prove dangerous in the knockout phase. I would prefer our men's team to have at least one tough match before the final against Singapore,” said Costantini, who pointed out that Nigeria's was not fielding its strongest team.
In the open events, too, Costantini and Mukherjee feel Indians can beat anyone in the field, with only those from Singapore posing a serious threat. “Expect more from K. Shamini and Madhurika Patkar. These two girls appear really motivated and very keen to capitalise on the opportunity,” said Mukherjee.
“The players know the importance of doing well in these Games. They have the capabilities of beating anyone, including a couple of players from Singapore. I am convinced that if they give their 200 per cent, the medals will surely come. It's important that mentally, they all are tough for the challenge,” said Costantini.