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TT: Indian men and women a step away from Olympics qualification
New Delhi, January 23, 2020
National champion Archana Kamath’s perseverance paid off as the teenager took India past the finish line in the decider of the round of 32 against favourites Sweden at the ITTF World Team Qualification Tournament in Gondomar (Portugal) on Wednesday.
Her brave efforts not only helped Indian women win the battle 3-2, but also took them a step closer to qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. They next meet fifth-seed Romania in the pre-quarters on Friday.
Earlier, the fifth-seeded Indian men scored a 3-0 triumph over 50th-ranked Luxembourg, but not before the top-ranked Indian G. Sathiyan, at No. 30, saved a match-point against Luca Mladenovic and A. Sharath Kamal dropped his third set against Eric Glod after the Indian duo had given a flying start in the doubles against Giles Michely and Glod.
But it was not a smooth start for the Indian women’s squad in the round of 32. The Indian pair of Archana and Ayhika Mukherjee began badly losing their opening doubles rubber to Christina Kallberg and Matilda Ekholm 7-11, 10-12, 15-17 before Manika Batra resurrected them with the singles win over defensive Linda Bwergstrom, who is ranked 75, 11-4, 6-11, 11-7, 11-7.
In a see-saw battle, Sweden went 2-1 up through Matilda Ekholm when she beat Ayhika Mukherjee 11-5, 11-13, 11-6, 11-7. Then Manika, playing her second singles, overcame the tough Christina before winning the rubber 10-12, 11-7, 9-11, 11-4, 11-7 to bring India on level at 2-2.
With the entire focus on Archana in the deciding rubber, the Bengaluru girl began well against Linda Bergstrom only to drop the next two sets. But it must be said to her credit that Archana played the waiting game well and tackled the defensive player well to level score and take the issue to the decider.
In the decider, Archana was straightaway in discomfort as she trailed 4-7 and then 9-10. With a distinct advantage, Linda missed the match-point to let the Indian deuce. At 11-10 the Indian, too missed a match-point when she tried to keep the ball short but she saw to it that the next two points came her way to sew it up 11-8, 8-11, 9-11, 11-7, 13-11 for India.
After Sharath and Harmeet Desai provided a winning start, following a close second set where the pair saved two set-points, Sathiyan ran into unexpected trouble against Luka Mladenovic, ranked 211. Sathiyan lost the first two sets and even faced a match-point at 10-11 in the fourth before the Indian raced away with three straight points to stay alive in the match.
“I hadn’t played Luka for a long time. He uses long pimples (on the backhand side) and it took time for me to settle down in the first game. But he brought in good variations and was really quick,” said Sathiyan.
He also admitted that he shouldn’t have lost the second set but he made some mistakes. “Yet, I’m happy to have kept my cool in the end-points,” he added.
Thereafter, it was left to Sharath, ranked 33rd, to finish the job. He took the first two sets rather easily before dropping the next as Glod raced to a 6-1 lead before Sharath went 8-7 up. However, Sharath, despite saving three set-points, squandered a match-point and dropped the game. In the fourth, Sharath led 5-2 and then broke away from 6-5 to win the last five points.
“You know, I can’t finish a match too early. So after 11-3, 11-3, I had to give away one set,” said Sharath in zest and continued,
“I’m very happy with the way we won, especially after Sathiyan made it from being match-point down. In doubles, we did well. Harmeet and I certainly struggled a bit but then it was fine. In singles, I hit a nice rhythm in the first few points. I’m feeling good,” said Sharath.
He also admitted that the pre-quarter-finals against Slovenia on Friday would not be as easy. “It’s going to be pretty close with all their players around. We haven’t played against each other that much but I do hope we can convert our chances.”