The 83rd National Table Tennis Championship was meant to showcase the best of the best in India. But no winner, rookie or veteran, could shake the cloud of sadness under which they were played.
And the players have understood this well. They got together early on, deciding among themselves that whoever won, the title would be dedicated to the one player who was no longer with them.
“It was very difficult to compete throughout the tournament,” eventual champion Achanta Sharath Kamal told Scroll.in.
“(D Vishwa) was our mutual friend. Me, Sathiyan, the other players, we decided that whoever wins, the title will be dedicated to Vishwa.
A day before the start of the tournament, Vishwa, a future table tennis player who had made a name for himself in the national junior circuit, died in a car accident on his way to the Shillong venue on 17 april.
“(The tragedy) was going through my head when we were playing. My thoughts were with him, it was really tough,” said Sharath, who duly posted a social media post dedicating his record 10th national title to the 18-year-old.
Far away in Chennai, about 2000 kilometers from the fateful crash, R Ramnath Prasad, Vishwa’s coach still chokes on the phone calling back his former student.
But he allows himself a short laugh as he describes the first week he spent coaching then five-year-old Vishwa at the Ramaswamy TT Club.
“He was a chubby kid when I first met him. At that time he was maybe three years old and was coming to the club to pick up his sister,” said Ramnath, who coached Vishwa for 13 years. to this publication.
“A few years later, I told him to start training. Within a week he was hitting forehands and backhands, around 150-200 balls consistently. It was a big thing. Generally, it would take a month for someone who is just starting to play only 50 backhand counters. But Vishwa was doing more than a hundred on both flanks in a week.
Ramnath is quick to add that although he was impressed, he had no idea at the time how good a Vishwa player would one day become.
Tall, attacking and lively at the table, the youngster was smooth, relaxed and friendly when he wasn’t playing.
The titles started coming fast at the youth level, including three consecutive national junior (under-17) titles when he moved to that division at the age of 15. But his mentality remained unchanged.
“I never had to push him, he was always motivated and wanted to work harder. He was never satisfied and always had a bigger goal he wanted to achieve,” Ramnath said.
“When he won the cadets, he wanted to win the sub-juniors, then the juniors, then the seniors. He always looked to the higher categories. He wouldn’t brag much after winning a junior title because he had bigger goals.
The rise of junior levels, however, has prompted seniors to take notice as well. Soon, Sharath started guiding the teenager, especially after the pandemic hit in 2020.
Padma Shri, 39, a close friend of Ramnath, was introduced to Vishwa when the youngster was around 10 years old.
“I would continue to take Vishwa to Sharath. Slowly Sharath became a mentor to him and he helped transform Vishwa,” Ramnath explained.
“Vishwa was a very attacking player but he only relied on his forehand. Sharath transformed his game. He made him more confident in his backhand, slice and topspin. He guided him with his practice, his physical condition.
“If Sharath called for a practice session at 6:30 a.m., he would be there about 15 to 20 minutes earlier. He was very disciplined on schedules. And Sharath saw the hard work he put in.
This is what made Vishwa’s sudden death all the more hurtful for Sharath and Ramnath. In terms of table tennis in India, Vishwa’s talent had been recognized early on and he had been meticulously groomed to become one of the leading players once he was old enough to move up to the senior division.
But Vishwa had already set his sights on the biggest prize the sport had to offer.
“He told me very often that he wanted to participate in the Olympic Games in Paris 2024. And then win a medal in Los Angeles 2028. He didn’t just want to participate and come back. He was driven by this dream, ”said the coach .
“It’s so hard that this happened.”
A day before the fateful trip, Vishwa had played another practice match against Sharath. This time, he got the better of the veteran in the friendly exercise. But he didn’t tell Ramnath about it.
“He told one or two of his friends about it. And they told me about this match at the funeral,” he said.
Vishwa didn’t inform Ramnath about the win, the coach suspects, as he was pestering the player with questions about the match. But it is almost normal that Ramnath was not informed. After all, Vishwa’s sights were on sport’s biggest stages.
And then, in a way that shook the entire table tennis fraternity in India, it all came to a heartbreaking end.