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An Olympian’s outreach

A Joseph Antony

Sometimes in sports, a trickle can turn into a torrent. An accomplished athlete, with the heart for a humble and lower than grass-roots level event, gives it a shot in the arm, merely by aligning with its cause. Olympian Neha Aggarwal Sharma strikes a chord with an apartment complex’s table tennis tournament, propping up its profile, that steers it from a possible no-show to success and sponsorship for a new table !

Perhaps cash-strapped by Covid-19, prospective sponsors turned down requests to fund a table tennis tournament for residents of Mansarovar Heights Phase I, a housing complex of about 260 apartments in Secunderabad. They failed to see the opportunity as a potential investment for better days or to connect with some of its well-off inhabitants.

Ambitions of the organizing trio—Rohit (The Hitman) Patnaik, Amit Srivastav and Poorna S. Haarit—weren’t too lofty. In the community club-house’s first floor TT hall, the rickety table desperately needed repairs. If there was more patronage, a new table could also be considered. There were the usual teething troubles that any event faces but they would soon take a turn for the better.

In her prime, Neha terrorised opponents with a rocket serve

Neha Aggarwal Sharma, alumnus of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, Columbia University, New York and 2008 Beijing Olympics table tennis player, was invited to be chief guest and give away the prizes. Covid concerns for elders at home prevented her from accepting the invitation. That didn’t deter her from contributing in her own way.

Well ahead of the Saturday start to the competition, the former champion paddler won many over with a heart-warming video she recorded and sent by Whatsapp. “Hello to all my friends at Mansarovar Heights Phase One. I am extremely excited that you all are getting to participate in this table tennis competition,” began the lady who ousted Mouma Das and Poulomi Ghatak to book a berth to the Beijing Games.

“Unfortunately, I will not be there amongst you all. But I feel it is a great opportunity. The Covid time has really impacted all of us in so many ways. I am a true believer that sport has a power to unite and bring positivity in all our lives. So I really encourage you all to please take part,” urged the Head, Partnerships and Communication, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), the sport career management firm that produced five of India’s eight Olympic medallists.

“It’s a wonderful sport. It’s a sport that has given me everything and made me who I am today. I hope you all can make the best use of the tournament . These are all small stepping stones in your career. I really hope that sooner or later some day, we produce a champion from your community,” said the popular TedX speaker and International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) media professional.

“Apologies once again for my inability to be there. But I hope to see you all sometime later, physically. All the very best to everyone. Please enjoy the game, stay safe and take care of yourselves,” said the Sports Management post-graduate from Columbia when signing off. She even offered to address the gathering on a Zoom video call during the valedictory function.

The video circulated in the society’s Whatsapp group had its desired effect. Children borrowed mobile phones from friendly uncles to call their parents. Hitherto citing online classes and half-yearly exams for not fielding their kids, a volte-face followed with a fairly fast inflow of entry fees of Rs. 50 per head in singles and Rs. 100 for a pair in doubles.

Some catchy visuals were posted by Amit on the community Whatsapp group that spoke of the fastest smash recorded of 117kmph with a ball that weighs just 2.7 grams ! His daily announcements sparked interest in the game if not build up competition.

Before long, things fell into place. When the big day arrived, one of Telangana womens table tennis’ top guns, Monica Manohar gave away the prizes. Accompanying her was her coach and mentor of many internationals, Maduri Venugopal.

Mrs. Prashanthi Prasad emerged the women’s singles winner, Taikhoom Bhanpurwala the children’s champion, while the men’s singles crown went to Arjun Nair. Mayuri Tandon, Ashwath Karthikeyun and Gautam Jana respectively were the runners-up.

FAST AND FURIOUS: For Neha, it was attack, from the word go.

The men’s final was keenly fought, both Arjun and Gautam equally attacking. The latter blazed ahead to a sizeable lead in the opening game but his overtly aggressive approach proved to be his undoing in the last quarter. Arjun meanwhile exercised greater control, his consistency carrying him to victory.

Children showed great initiative by registering the men’s doubles too. Two teenagers combined well with their seniors to add sheen this otherwise dull engagement. Rohit and Ashwath emerged winners while Arjun and Anish Devnoor were runners-up.

Mohammed Aslam, who set off a string of spontaneous donations from residents, feted the pedagogue and his pupil. Monica gladly obliged when playing exhibition games with Rohit, the complex’s champ and later against her sibling Sourabh. Like almost all left-handers, she enthralled the gathering with her skills of spin and speed.

Generous with their contributions to a new table were Rajeev Juneja, Roopesh, Ravi Ramakrishnan, Mustafa Unjawala, L.S. Ravi, Prakash Savio, Huzefa Bhanpurwala and Mrs. Prashanti, The idea had germinated over a Sunday cup of tea on a terrace. Few would have foreseen that team work would not only take the tourney off the ground but cheer many, especially the children. 

The results (finals):

Children: Taikhoom Bhanpurwala bt Ashwath Karthikeyun 21-12, 21-18. Women: Prashanti Prasad bt Mayuri Tandon 11-9, 11-5. Men singles: Arjun Nair bt Gautam Jana 21-18, 21-12. Doubles: Rohit Patnaik/Ashwath Karthikeyun bt Arjun Nair/Anish Devnoor 21-16, 21-14.

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