Ambika Radhika who held sway over the State table tennis circuit for long, tells K. Pradeep that she is game for more

Playing for the country at the Atlanta Olympics (1996) was perhaps the best thing to have happened to me

She is the undisputed ping-pong diva of the State. Right from the time Ambika Radhika broke upon the table tennis scene as an eight-year-old, quit competitive circuit, she held absolute sway. This Olympian and former National champion, the only paddler from the State with these credentials, does make an occasional appearance in tournaments. And she still rules the table.

At the last State championship held in Wayanad in November, Radhika played for Thiruvananthapuram, her home side, once again. In an absolute thriller that went down the wire she clinched the verdict in favour of her side. “I played only the team event. This I did bowing to the pressure from by brother (Rajesh) and my other friends. I won the decider. Let me tell you I think I can still win,” says Radhika with a reassuring smile.

For someone who gave up serious table tennis after the 2001 Nationals, Radhika, who has gained weight, lost some of her speed, is still champion stuff. “You cannot forget something that you picked up as a child, something you grew up with. Even today, a day is not complete without a couple of hours at the table. This might be with my sons (Aswin and Advaith) or with the kids at Regional Sports Centre.”

Father's inspiration

Picking up the paddle when she could barely see across the table, it was grit, and her father's (K. R. Pillai was former Tamil Nadu and Kerala champion) inspiration that was responsible for her hogging the limelight. “It started with accompanying my father to tournaments where Rajesh played. Then for training sessions at the Kerala Table Tennis Hall, which once stood near Mascot Hotel, I was a happy ball-picker. Gradually, I began playing. By then we had a table at home and so it was anytime ping pong.”

Practising in the cramped hall at home, under the watchful eyes of her father, Radhika picked up the nuances of the game. “My father was not just an inspiration, he was adamant that I play big time table tennis. In those early days he was always there when I played, shouting, cajoling. Though I was fortunate to be trained by other respected coaches, I always reverted to my father. This did call for some adverse criticism from various quarters.”

Radhika's father perhaps saw an extension of his own ambitions in her. And Radhika did not let him down. At 10 she won the State sub-junior title and followed it up with the National title. Along with it she won the No. 1 ranking, the first Keralite, male or female, to bag both the same year. “Maybe winning in the first few tournaments I took part in was a huge inspiration to continue playing. Winning the Intab Cup at Chennai, and South Zone at Palakkad, really set me off to more long hours of practice. Table tennis was beginning to become an integral part of my life.”

Things happened swiftly. Radhika climbed the success ladder steadily. She won the Junior National title and landed her first job when she was just 15. “I joined Railways as a clerk, posted at Thiruvananthapuram. I hardly went to work, but this helped me pursue my game.”

The next few years saw Radhika dominate. She went on to win almost all the tournaments in the State and even some of the national ranked events. The icing on the cake was the senior national crown at Indore, again the only Malayali to achieve this. “But playing for the country at the Atlanta Olympics (1996) was perhaps the best thing to have happened to me. It was the realisation of a dream, mine and my father's.”

Strangely, after the Olympics, Radhika suffered a slide. In between, she had joined Indian Oil Corporation, got married (Suresh works for TCS in the city) and was in the family way. “I did play for a few more years but somehow it was as if I had done everything possible. I know it should not have been like this.” For some time after years as a professional she felt it tough making adjustments in her work and managing the house. “There were times when I even thought of quitting the job. Thank God I did not. Even today I miss the circuit, my friends, the competition. I still keep in touch with some of my table tennis friends.”

About the game in the State, Radhika around whom the State's fortunes revolved for many, many years, feels nothing much has changed. “There are a lot of talented youngsters but there is still lack of facilities. It is a shame that even today we play State championships in dusty, badly lit godowns. The parents and children need to be inspired to continue playing.”

If there is one thing that Radhika learnt quite late and is still trying to negotiate like the spins and smashes on the table, is cooking. “I never thought about this at all till I got married. Then there was my mother with me. Now, with her at my brother's place and just the four of us I need to try out something in the kitchen. I think I'm not bad. Just ask the restaurants around, for we are very often there,” she says with a laugh.

Roll of honour

  • Winner: National Sub-junior,
  • Muzaffarpur, 1986

  • Winner: National Junior,
  • Indore, 1989

  • Winner: National Senior,
  • Pondicherry, 1996

  • Winner: SAF Games, Sri Lanka
  • (1993), Dhaka (1995)

  • Runner-up: Commonwealth
  • Games, 1991, Nairobi

  • Olympic Games, Atlanta, 1996
  • National Senior No. 1
  • from 1991 to 1993

  • National Top 3 from 1990-1996