The Indian men’s team has been the stars of their Group at the World Table Tennis Team Championships being held in Chengdu, China. With one match to go against France, they’re currently top of their group, something not many would have bet on.
After blanking Uzbekistan 3-0 in their first encounter, they punched way above their weight to beat World No. 2 and European champions Germany in their second tie. On Monday, they held their nerve excellently to overcome a tricky Kazakhstan 3-2.
While the star of the show has been their captain G Sathiyan, who pulled off a stellar win over World No. 9 Dang Qiu of Germany, national champion Harmeet Desai has also been in great touch. And while the focus is on Sathiyan and Harmeet, India’s third paddler – Manav Thakkar – has been nothing short of spectacular. In fact, ahead of the final group match, he’s the only Indian not to lose a match at these Championships.
Against Uzbekistan in the first tie, Manav beat Shokhrukh Iskandarov 3-0 (11-8, 11-5, 11-5). He then upset World No. 74 Germany’s Ricardo Walther 3-1 (13-11,6-11,11-8,12-10), a match which actually swung the tie in India’s favor.
On Monday, again he broke no sweat in beating Kazakhstan’s Alan Kurmangaliyev 3-0 (12-10,11-1,11-8).
These were all impressive victories for the 22-year-old, who was a standby player for India at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
He had to make a myriad of adjustments to his game. Even during rallies, especially against Walther, he had to be decisive in his attacking gameplay.
From rollerskating to gymnastics to table tennis
Then again, for Manav, life has been all about making tough decisions.
At the age of four, he was an age-group rollerskating champion in his hometown Surat. But if he had to continue competing, the next stage would mean that he would have had to take up rollerblading. His parents, both doctors, felt that it was rather unsafe, especially later on, and had the difficult task of asking him to choose a different sport.
He complied with their request, but surely his parents wouldn’t have been too happy with his next choice – gymnastics.
While he was training for his new sport, something happened that would pique his interest and change the course of his destiny.
To enhance their hand-eye coordination, Manav’s parents would play table tennis on the board they installed in their three-storied bungalow in Surat.
Seeing them play for a couple of days, Manav was intrigued. Although he could barely reach the table, he troubled his father to give him a try.
“The first time I tried it, at the age of five, my dad says that I managed to return three balls properly. And I was intrigued about the sport too,” Manav had told The Indian Express on the sidelines of the 36th National Games in Surat where he partnered Harmeet to win gold in men’s doubles.
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His parents were happy about it too because it was an indoor sport and more so because it was less injury-prone than gymnastics. They happily enrolled him in a local TT academy and although the coach was initially reluctant to sign him on, Manav’s dad coaxed him to take his son on.
“I enjoyed playing table tennis but I didn’t stop gymnastics. I was good at gymnastics and played a state-level tournament too but I kept losing at TT which really frustrated me.”
At the age of eight when his parents asked him to focus on his studies and choose between gymnastics and table tennis, one would assume he would choose the sport he was good at.
Not him. He chose the sport he kept on losing.
“I just wanted to beat the players in my academy. I used to feel so bad that I couldn’t beat anyone, be it girls or boys. The fact that I couldn’t win motivated me to choose the sport.”
What he didn’t know though, was those were state-level players at his academy and there was no way he was going to beat them. At least not then.
With no gymnastics to distract him, his focus was fully on table tennis and he trained so hard that in a couple of years, he was able to beat his club mates. That’s when his coach decided that he was ready to compete.
In 2008 he started to compete at the U-12 state tournaments. He was the fourth seed for Gujarat representing his state.
While he did decently, he wanted to elevate his game. His parents knew of a petroleum academy in Ajmer which would take care of his all-round development while helping him focus on table tennis. But that would mean leaving his big bungalow and moving into a hostel. Manav’s desire to compete at the highest level meant that he wouldn’t let anything come in the way and at the age of 12, he moved to the hostel.
“It wasn’t easy. Initially, I missed my parents a lot and they would come once a week. Gradually that decreased. I now spend only 25 days a year at home, and that too never more than 3-4 days at a stretch,” he said.
Going to the hostel proved to be the best decision for him.
“There was a Chinese coach there (Yin Wei) and also I was able to play with the top Indian players there. Although he initially felt that I was too skinny and lacked power, he noticed that during tournaments I didn’t get nervous and was able to elevate my game as my tactics were good,” he said.
Wei’s mentorship seemed to work wonders for Manav and in 2013, he was named in the Indian U-15 team. And from 2013 till now, Manav has been representing India.
After being India No. 1 in different age groups, he became World No. 1 in U-18 and then in 2020, he was World No. 1 in U-21 category.
In 2018, he was part of the Indian team that won bronze at the team event of the Asian Games, making him the youngest Indian to win a medal.
But it’s not always been easy for him. The most challenging part was moving on from age-group tournaments to the senior level.
“It was similar to losing to everybody at my first club. I had to quickly adapt. It was more mental,” he said.
Now he’s not just surviving, but thriving.
“I hope to compete in the Bundesliga (Germany’s top division), play alongside world-class talent and raise my game to new heights,” Manav said.
It may not be Germany, but in China, he’s doing just that.