Thiruvananthapuram: When the UTT National Ranking (South Zone) Table Tennis Championships get underway at the Jimmy George Indoor Stadium from Wednesday one cannot escape but feel a sense of newness about the event.
For starters, it returns to the state capital after nearly a decade and a half and this time with the added responsibility of conducting team championships in both men and women sections, reintroduced for the first time during the North Zone championships held at Sonepat in June. Additionally, the championships will be organised by Table Tennis Association of Kerala, the newly-formed body that has taken charge of table tennis affairs in the state.
As if this not enough, the zonal would add yet another chapter to it when it concurrently hosts the under-15 events for boys and girls, following the Sports Ministry’s recommendation to include a new age group to the national ranking championships.
All these and the success of the team championships at the North Zone are pointers to the way the sport has really taken off in recent times. With PSPB dominating team events in senior nationals, the concept of team championships in national ranking tournaments was the only answer to assess the supremacy of teams in a particular zone, despite the anomalies among competing teams in every zone. If Haryana and Delhi proved to be the two strong contenders in the North, the contest for team titles in the South Zone would be between Tamil Nadu and Telangana. The rest, including Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Pondicherry, can at best be vying for the bronze medals with Karnataka having an edge over others.
Tamil Nadu will depend on the experience of both Nitin Thiruvengadam and Ananth Devarajan with Nikhil Suresh filling in the third singles spot eminently, while Telangana’s Aman Baglu along with SFR Snehit and Mohammed Ali will look to pose the challenge to Tamil Nadu in men’s event.
Karnataka, the dark horse, would look up to Shreyal Telang, who has the ability to rock the opponent’s boat, in the company of Susmith Barigidad and Shreyas Kulkarni. But hosts Kerala, which has a strong team on paper, will largely depend on the ability of Soham Bhattacharya to provide the impetus for other team members to capitalize on. Pondicherry will struggle but will try hard to make an impression.
In women’s event, the title contest is limited to Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh with the first named team having the edge, thanks to Selenadeepthi Selvakumar and Yashini Sivashankar, the two most dependable players, in their ranks. But Telangana is not a pushover with Varuni Jaiswaal, Pranitha Garlapati and Naina with their support casts in Monica Manohar and V. Sasya to pitch in. The burden of Andhra rests on the shoulders of Shailu Noorbasha, Kajol Ramjali and B. Nagasravani. But Kerala lacks depth and experience but can be expected to raise their game at home and hope for K. Anekha, Adheena Latheef and K. Ankitha to provide the twists.
Yet, the real action begins from the second day of the zonal when the men and women qualifications start. G. Sathiyan, the top-ranked Indian in the world, A. Amalraj, the title winner at North Zone, have skipped the tournament, while national champion Archana Kamath and Manika Batra have opted out as they are playing abroad. However, it would be the second successive tournament for Manika to not make an appearance.
But the good news is that the affable A. Sharath Kamal, along with Manav Thakkar, the paddler leading the points table, and Harmeet Desai will be competing for the title. It presents a good opportunity for one of the three to claim the silverware while Sutirtha Mukherjee, the winner of North Zone crown, would be gunning for her second consecutive title win. Madhurika, the former national champion and others would like to upset Sutirtha’s calculations.
The championships will see veteran referee A.S.Kler taking charge of the proceedings with other veterans in Anil Dubey and T.G. Upadhya assisting him along with 60 Blue Badge, international and national umpires on all eight days of the tournament which has a record number of 1600 entries.
According to competition manager, N. Ganeshan, who is also the president of TTAK, 15 Stag tables, balls and flooring will be used during the championships.
In their endeavour to make the event truly memorable, TTAK has made successful forays by bringing in co-sponsors Indian Oil Corporation Limited with ONGC and Bank of Baroda, the associate sponsors for the championships that are powered by Stag.