Pictures Courtesy: ITTF.com & magzter.com
A . Joseph Antony
May God bless and keep you always…
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young: From ‘Forever Young’ by Pete Seeger.
Shortly after the senior Nationals at Saroornagar, Hyderabad earlier this year, I got a Facebook friend request from Javeed Sultan. After accepting, I asked him to find out from his father, S.M. Sultan, the secret of staying young.
For the two decades I knew him, Sultan was the ruler of sartorial elegance ! When he felt no one was watching, he’d fish out a comb from his coat pocket to streamline his dense walrus moustache, not so much his hair. The facial foliage completely concealed his upper lip but couldn’t hide a warm smile that broke out on seeing someone he liked.
Just as much as his good friend and Andhra Pradesh Table Tennis Association President V. Bhaskar Ram could bring the roof down with his laughter, Sultan was subdued, each an ideal foil for the other. That they got along like a house on fire was evident during the 2012 World Junior Table Tennis championships (WJTTC) at Gachibowli, Hyderabad.
Not only was the week-long event meticulously organised, it brought out the best from one paddler in particular. Fan Zhendong, the youngest ever International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) world tour champion, would bestride the ping pong world like a latter-day Colossus and prove unstoppable.
The 15-year-old’s fusillade of forehand loop drives steamrollered his Chinese compatriot into submission. Not surprisingly, the fiercely aggressive right-hander took down some of the game’s biggest names to become world no. 3 in a year or two, in the men’s section mind you.
Quite contrary to his name, Sultan was never the tyrant or bossy. He exemplified the old teamwork adage of ‘more we and less of me.’ Perhaps the trait to work together may have gathered steam from a table tennis table. Much after he’d hung up his boots from competitive table tennis, his loyal band of friends—the late Uday, Vishy and Karnam Balram would hang out together after a rigorous round of table tennis, almost every day at the Dandamudi Rajagopal Municipal stadium in Vijayawada.
In pre-internet days, he was prompt with communication and always forthcoming with information. Thanks to him I broke the story of Hyderabad hosting the Asian Junior championships for The Hindu. Similarly, he gave me another ‘scoop,’ when he quietly took me aside to reveal the room number and hotel where Peter Karlsson was staying, the Swedish legend having slipped into the Twin Cities unnoticed by the hack pack. So did he call to alert me of Nikhat Banu, who by winning the National cadet girls crown had ended a decades-long drought for Andhra Pradesh (undivided) after the exploits of Mir Khasim Ali.
Not many may know that Sultan began as an understudy to TTFI honcho Azam. Very soon, the pupil would outgrow his pedagogue when it came to organizing events. Largely logic-driven, Sultan grew in stature step-by-step, hosting district tourneys first, state level events next before venturing towards the national stage, armed with the wealth of experience behind him.
Not surprisingly, he would bring some of the nation’s biggest TT events to Vijayawada, his hometown, along with the big guns, who were bowled over by his hospitality. Towards this, he’d enlist the support of its major hoteliers, such as those of Hotel Manorama and Ilapuram, the owner of the first-named institution an avid table tennis player himself. Then the biggest names, they would host players and officials who would descend on the town in large numbers. In the early 90s, in one such South Zone ranking tournament, the players alone numbered 800.
All too aware that TT wasn’t cricket, most of the players and officials were accommodated free of cost. That was perhaps made possible by this suave advocate who’d convince the oil majors like Indian Oil and others to sponsor the tournaments. Before long, national level events stopped exciting him enough perhaps and he spread the net wider to reach out to a global audience.
A cool head was a big asset, as he was never known to lose his cool. Even as his gaze was on the greater picture, he wouldn’t miss the smaller details. Perhaps the most people-friendly official cutting across sports, he could relate to almost anyone.
So many times he carted me around Vijayawada in his white Maruti Zen (if I remember right). When heading for Vizianagaram to report a cricket match, I was pleasantly surprised to find him in the next coupe of the Godavari Express. When we reached Vizag, where we were to part ways, he requested the port town’s top official DVSY Sharma, to drop me first at the bus stand before heading for his hotel. There can be little doubt that everyone he interacted with would remember him with fondness.
That his end came in such tragic circumstances would be hard to swallow for his followers. Weeks before, his mother passed away of Covid 19. On Friday, his wife was no more. Sultan’s turn came on Saturday, while his son Javeed departed on Sunday. United they were in life and remained so also in death. Spontaneous was the outpouring of grief, tributes coming in from all over the world.
Farewell Sultan. You will hold sway over our hearts always. Even the angels will break out in applause when you host the next TT championship in heaven !