Sunder Iyer is one of the first names that will pop in your head when you think...
Age is not a barrier, and its only the limitations we have in our minds. Harmeet Desai has proven that right by dreaming big and making that possible. As a hyperactive kid, he was fascinated by the speed of the game but never lost focus on the process. A firm believer in the process, Harmeet believes that process and preparation to win matters more than the win itself.
World Ranked 72 currently, Arjuna Awardee Winner Harmeet had earlier stormed into the top 100 by winning Asian Table Tennis Championship in 2017, the third Indian to do so after Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran. Later he went on to winning gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth games and 2019 Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships.
Nationally, Harmeet is the National Champion for 2019-20, and is only the first player from Gujrat to achieve this feat. He is also a decorated player, and is sponsored by the TOP scheme by Govt. of India.
Read in to know more of Harmeet’s sporting journey and about his success. Life has not been so easy for him too, and this story will make you realize the ups and downs one must traverse in his life.
How did it all start for you? Your foray into Table Tennis, not a hugely popular sport in the country.
I started when I was just 6 years old, at a very young age, could not even reach the height of the table. I was so short that it was difficult to play. My father then bought the TT table to play with his friends (he used to play TT himself in college days) whenever he got time. I was fascinated by the sport and used to watch them play in great detail. I loved the spins and speed of the game, being a very hyperactive kid myself. Being a stubborn kid, I kept trying to play the game and reaching the height of the table but it was difficult. I used to cry for hours, and then my parents allowed me to play sports. Sooner or later, it became my passion, and started loving the sport.
My dad was my first coach, and later he hired another coach. Used to practice every day in the evening sessions, around 2 hours and this ritual ensured that I got glued to the sport.
Harmeet with his Father (on the left) and his mother (on the right). Credit: Instagram
In a matter of 6 months, I started to perform well. I could play anytime at home, and my mother also used to play with me, after they came back from the office. It used to be sometime at 11 pm in the night, and I would wait for long for her to come. After that, I will keep playing till I win and that will go sometimes late at night. That was the passion which I developed, and kudos to my parents for it. They are the backbone of my sporting journey and success. I am so thankful and indebted to my parents that they allowed me to pursue my dreams.
I had the hunger to learn & improve which made me perform well at district and state-level competitions. I was able to beat the candidates who are 5-6+ years older than me.
Why Table Tennis, and not any other sport? Does not have a great history, isn’t it?
Coming from Surat, we do not have a sporting culture. We are considered as a business hub. Before me, there was no international sportsman from Surat. People, relatives did advise us to try something else. But I think beauty is to follow your heart, and I was following this sport in my heart. Willing to give my 200% to the sport, I picked this as my career at such a tender age.
When I started initially, I did not have much idea of what sport to pick on. Fascinated by the speed and the spin and watching my father play, used to excite me a lot. Considering that it is the second-fastest sport in the world, I was further glued to it. True that it wasn’t a famous sport in the past due to lack of opportunities, but in the recent past this sport has picked up. So many players now are getting the opportunity to make their careers out of the sport. We have the UTT league now, which is an amazing platform for the youngsters. We won 8 medals, the highest ever, in the commonwealth games. Got 2 medals in the Asian Games, and in the last world championship, we had beaten Japan. All these things in the recent past have made the name of table tennis in India.
Harmeet in action (Credit: Instagram)
True history is not there, but support is coming our way. Government support, private sponsors, and many other entities are making a foray into the game. Our current crop of younger players is extremely talented too. Good times ahead!
What was the triggering point in your life, when you made a final call on Tennis as your career?
At the age of 7-8 years, I was very sure that I wanted to make a life out of it. At the age of 7, I started to perform well in Surat & Gujarat. At the age of 7.5, I went to an academy (Petroleum Table Tennis Academy) in Ajmer to train under a Chinese coach. This academy has produced many great players in Table tennis. Away from my home, I was there for one year to learn new techniques and different aspects of the game so that I could improvise on my game. My parents were so supportive, that at such a young age they allowed me to go to Ajmer and train there for a year. Due to my strong desire, they sacrificed a lot. I used to study there, and at the same time train under the coach. It was very difficult for me however and started getting homesick.
At the age of 8.5 years, I returned and started training with my brother for around 6-8hrs daily. Schools in Surat weren’t that supportive, as they were hardly into sports. Due to this, I had a change of around 8-9 schools. My attendance in schools was always a problem. By the age of 10, I had been to almost all the top training centers in India to train myself. Later we started inviting some good players to our home since we have table tennis at home. Players from Bengal, Mumbai, and other locations used to come to my place, practice with me for a few days then go back. Around the age of 12, I got selected for the national team and went to China for a month for training. Learned lots of things from every person around me. Around 80-100 different coaches at different intervals of my life & all of them taught me some great tips and tricks.
At the age of 16, I got the Junior National championship and secured a scholarship from the international table tennis federation for a Swedish trip to train under Peter Karlsson, one of the greats in the game. Those things helped me improve my game even further.
Harmeet Desai (men’s singles winner) and Sutirtha Mukherjee (women’s singles) at the 81st Senior National table tennis championship in Hyderabad on February 2, 2020.
Photo Credit: G. Ramakrishna [thehindu.com]
An 80-100 coach is quite rare. How did you adapt & manage the learnings?
A player needs to be aware of his game, right and wrong. All the coaches would want me to improve and everyone tried to give the advice they thought was right. But it is also a responsibility of a player like me, who never had a proper coach for a longer period. It did get very difficult at times, as the devices were contradictory. My father & brother used to help me in those situations. My brother was my regular companion till the age of 16.
So, how is your brother now? Tell us about him.
He is a coach now and training other kids in Surat. He runs 2-3 academies in Surat and is fully dedicated to coaching.
Harmeet with his brother, his inspiration (Credit: Instagram)
Ever thought of coaching.
Due to enhanced sports science, players tend to have long careers. Would like to continue as much as I can playing the sport, after which coaching is something I will love doing.
How did you manage your studies with such a busy play & training schedule?
I did my Graduation (BCom) & Post-Graduation (MBA) and was able to do it side by side. Was able to give at least one hour every day to cope up with my studies. Time management is important in whatever we do. Sports teaches you how to manage time, and that is how I learned to manage my studies along with table tennis. Going to movies, parties, hangouts was never in my schedule ever.
We need to set the right priorities in life. For me, the priority has always been to represent India and win a medal for the country. Hence there is no regret about missing those movies, parties, etc. If you like something to the core six hours of play will seem like 15 mins, but if you don’t like it then even 1hr of play will seem like 6hrs of struggle.
Let’s rewind a bit. Tell us, how the lockdown went for you.
When the lockdown was announced, I was lucky back in India. Was happy to be back with my family, after so many years. Lots of positives to take back from this break. It was like an offseason for me. As players, we are playing throughout the year and hardly get time to revisit our techniques or make some changes in the game. Gave a lot of focus on my game and physical workouts.
The downside was the lack of tournaments and traveling. Since I started playing table tennis, this has been the longest break for me. I love traveling, meeting people, and enjoy every bit of that. So yeah, in that respect it was a flip.
Harmeet during his workouts (Credit: Instagram)
2 weeks back, I played my first match post lockdown, and it was difficult. I had lost the match temperament a bit but somehow managed to win the game.
So, which tournament are you playing now?
I am playing in the French league currently, playing for a club here. This league is like other sports leagues and lasts for 8-9 months, with around 3-4 matches in a month. My next match is on 17th & 20th Nov. When there are no games, we practice, analyze our games, and prepare for the matches. We generally practice twice a day, except for the weekends.
Putting along there… How is your community circle there?
Yeah, I have been in this training center since 2018. Have good friends here, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, there is not much getting together. Post games or practice, I just come back to my place and have breakfast, lunch, or dinner at home itself.
Important for us to stay fit and not fall into the COVID-19 trap, as it will make us weak.
Ever felt let down or dropping the sport...
Feels every year almost. Smiles...!!
Every year, there are many games which I have not won and at times it lets you down. But it has not discouraged me from dropping the sport. As a player, I think doubts are good for athletes as it helps us push our limits. Else I will always feel that I am in my comfort zone and then the learning will stop.
Many times, in my career, I doubted myself, if I can push my limits or improve further from where I am. And in a situation like this, I always look at my past successes and motivate myself. I think that is the only way to self-motivate and keep going. I am here after so many sacrifices and dedication, so I should just go on and give my best. Thankfully, each time things have fallen in place for me. Such times, speaking to your close relatives and coaches is also very important.
Last 2-3 years, you have been on a roll.
Every achievement is greater than the other. Last 2 years, every moment was very special to me. My father had a dream of me getting the Arjuna Award, and he had that vision since my childhood. It was such an emotional and proud moment to receive the Arjuna Award in In front of him, from the President of India at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Such a special day for me and my family.
Harmeet with Honourable Prime Minister of India (Shri. Narendra Modi) & Honourable President of India (Shri. Ram Nath Kovind) receving the Arjuna Award in 2019 (Credit: Instagram)
Getting Gold at Commonwealth games 2018 was also very special, as we got to wait 4 years for the commonwealth games. CWG 2014, I missed the medal by a whisker. So was very determined to get gold in 2018.
In 2019, I represented the country in the 21st Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships and won two gold medals in Men's Singles & Men's Team Championships and won bronze in Mix Doubles. Around 6 months before the CWG 2019, I was not playing that well and was not picked for the world championship. That made me feel devastated, but I took the opportunity to practice hard in Germany and prepare well for CWG. Wanted to show & prove to everyone that I have the firepower and am still a good player. In the finals, we were down 2-0 against England, and I won the third match which was the turning point. Nothing can get better than to contribute to such a big game and get a medal for the country.
Also, for the Indonesian Open, as I was the first Indian to win an Asian championship. All these victories have been amazing and special.
How do you see India rising in the ranks?
In the last 4 years, India has improved a lot. We have moved to 8th rank in the world, compared to 31st in 2016. Since 2017, we have UTT league where foreign players & coaches come to India and play alongside us. We share the sport, dressing room and that gives great exposure to our athletes. Good things are happening, and from here we will be doing much better in the years to come.
Tell us about your sponsors
I am getting sponsored by the Sports Authority of Gujarat and the TOP scheme from the Sports Authority of India. They are my main sponsors. Apart from that my gears, apparels are sponsored by Joola. They have been very supportive of me for the last 2-3 years.
Harmeet with his sponsors. Felicitated by the chief minister of the State of Gujrat - Mr. Rupani (left) and association with Joola (left) for his sports gears. (Credit: Instagram)
On top of that, I have also been associated with ONGC for the last 6 years. Thankful to everyone who has supported me to the core and hope they continue to trust in my abilities in years to come.
Your role model in the game
It is from Zhang Jike. He is one of the greats in the sport, Olympic gold medalist, and twice world champion.
Upcoming players in India
Manav Thakkar is doing well. He is just 21 years and has great potential. He will go far and lead India forward in the years to come. Manush Shah & Payas Jain are also great potentials in the country. Archana Kamath in the women segment is a great athlete. They all will certainly do wonders for the country.
What kind of kid were you in the class?
Oh. Very introverted and shy.
Quite difficult for me as I had poor attendance. Other kids used to think that I am just traveling around and going on holiday.
Ever got punishments in school
Oh yes. I have got it. Smiles...!
Teenage role model
Always been Rafael Nadal
Favorite travel locations
New Zealand for sure. The countryside of France is also beautiful.
Follow us on Instagram for more updates.