Telangana paddler Sreeja Akula has her eyes set on Paris Olympics after beating World No 2

Sreeja Akula and Ayhika M pulled out a sterling win, beating world's top two Chinese players, Wang Yidi and Sun Yingsha, respectively in Busan World Team Table Tennis Championship.

ByAjay Tomar

Published Feb 18, 2024 | 12:08 PMUpdatedFeb 18, 2024 | 5:55 PM

Telangana paddler has her eyes set on Paris Olympics after turning the tables on World No 2 Chinese player in Busan World Team Table Tennis Championship

On Friday, 16 February, two Indian paddlers turned the tables on two top-seeded Chinese players to win at the 2023 IITF World Team Table Tennis Championship being held in South Korea’s Busan.

While 155-seeded Ayhika Mukherjee of West Bengal defeated World No 1 Sun Yingsha 3-1, Sreeja Akula of Telangana, ranked 49, pulled out a sterling win, vanquishing second-ranked Wang Yidi in three straight sets.

The Indian athletes’ achievements became more glorious since the Chinese women’s team had won the championship gold in the previous edition without conceding even a single match. They continued to do it to date after recovering from the two debilitating losses and defeated India 3-2.

Additionally, Sun has won at least 15 World and Asian titles since 2017. In 12 of those wins, she defeated her compatriots in the final.

She has remained undefeated, winning all her 26 singles matches in the international team tournaments. The world number two Yidi has won six similar level tourneys in the past five years with three of them coming against compatriots.

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Executed my learnings and plan

“It was a great experience to play against the best players in the world.  I am really happy to beat the World No 2. I am happy not just because I won but because I was also able to execute all that I have learnt and planned,” Akula told South First over the phone from Busan, as she geared up for the tie against Hungary on 18 February.

Telangana paddler has her eyes set on Paris Olympics after turning the tables on World No 2 Chinese player in Busan World Team Table Tennis Championship

Indian women’s team’s scorecard after the tie with China at the World Team Table Tennis Championship in Busan. (Screengrab)

The Indian women’s team, which has been seeded 17, has been grouped with China (number one), Hungary (16), Uzbekistan (36) and Spain (30).

Akula, who played the third match, remarked that Mukherjee’s win over Sun made the whole squad more confident.

“Our team spirit was really high after Ayhika defeated World Number 1 in the first game. Everybody was supporting each other really well and the first win from Ayhika boosted our confidence,” Akula said.

While the two Indians outshone China’s top players and led 2-1 at one stage, the latter later recovered and sealed the tie 3-2 in their favour.” We were feeling bad that we came so close and lost at the last moment. But we are happy that we did our best,” Akula said.

The Hyderabad paddler broke into the top 50 in world rankings for the first time in her career last month after winning her first WTT tournament at Corpus Christi (Texas), beating World No 32 American Lily Zhang. She then reached the quarterfinal of the Goa Star Contender which saw her bettering her ranking.

“To pursue her goal of qualifying for the Olympics, she has to improve the rankings. Last month Sreeja started participating in several international tournaments. The ranking depends on the number of matches she plays outside India. The more she plays, the more points she

Sreeja Akula after beating World No 32 American Lily Zhang at 2024 Corpus Chritsti

Sreeja Akula after winning the Corpus Christi tournament against American Lily Zhang. (X)

secures. Winning the Corpus Christi was a big breakthrough for her. Now, yesterday’s win is the biggest in her career,” Akula’s father, Praveen, told South First.

The 49th-ranked player said the win augmented her belief in herself. “The win over World No 2 definitely gives a lot of confidence and learnings to all of us. But every match is a fresh one and every opponent is different. So going into the next matches, I would just take the learnings from the previous match, prepare well, and approach each match as a fresh one,” Akula asserted.

She thanked her childhood coach Somnath Ghosh for helping her “plan well” in the months leading to the championships.

Before the match, Akula dialed Ghosh in Hyderabad. ” I told her that she stands a good chance against Yidi because the Chinese do not look to hit every ball, which would give Sreeja a push-back and enough time to hit hard,” the coach told South First.

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‘Not talented but dedicated’

At the age of nine, Akula followed in the footsteps of her father, Praveen Kumar, and elder sister, Ravali, who both pursued table tennis before taking up different routes.

Later, she trained under Ghosh, who runs an academy at Kukatpally in Hyderabad.

Telangana paddler has her eyes set on Paris Olympics after turning the tables on World No 2 Chinese player in Busan World Team Table Tennis Championship

Sreeja Akula (fourth from left) with Indian squad at hangzhou Asian Games 2023. (X)

“She was not that talented but was dedicated, disciplined, and determined. She used to be consistent with the practice, like turning up every day well before time. If the practice time was 4, she would reach a minimum of 30 or 40 minutes earlier. If she did not get a stroke, she would practice it 1000 times to learn,” Ghosh explained.

The perseverance was reflected in Akula’s game on Friday as she hardly showed any sign of nervousness despite her lead her 8-2 slipping in the third game as Yidi made a comeback to tie it at 9-9. The Chinese pushed her further by advancing 10-9 in the next rally with a game point in the hand.

“I was scared at that point that if this game gone, then she has to start afresh,” Ghosh recalled. “It would have been tougher then. Sitting at home, I could do nothing but shout and ask her to finish the game and kill the match. That is what she did to pocket the game as well as the match in straight sets,” he added.

For him, Akula has been performing well recently but defeating the World No 2 two was exemplary. “It was unexpected. And that too, two players from India did it on the same day,” he grinned.

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An attacking mindset

While much has been talked about Indian women paddlers using varying defensive rubbers, (used as covering on a racket in table tennis), both Akula and Mukherjee displayed that they can attack as well.

Ghosh was all praise of Akula’s attacking play and forehand, which helped her grab almost all of her points.

Telangana paddler has her eyes set on Paris Olympics after turning the tables on World No 2 Chinese player in Busan World Team Table Tennis Championship

Sreeja Akula with her childhood coach Somnath Ghosh after winning the gold in mixed doubles category at the 2022 Birmingham CWG. (Supplied)

“She always plays forehand more because I keep questioning her why she was playing with long pimples (rubbers used for spin and backhand defense). Because now she never uses it at all, she always attacks back. It is a strong point. I think she played 100 percent forehand because she didn’t get a point with a pimple,” Ghosh said.

For him, 2022 was a turning point in Akula’s career when she made it to the big leagues by winning the Senior National and Interstate Table Tennis Championships.

The same year, the ace paddler went on to win the gold medal at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. She was then bestowed with Arjuna Award — the second-highest sporting honour in India.

The following year, India’s number-one paddler won numerous national-level trophies including the Senior Nationals. In recent months, the coach-student duo worked on improving Akula’s stance more than her skills. The paddler also took the services of a sports psychologist.

“Around last year, I pointed out to her that her body language was bad off the table. This was because she used to play with stooping shoulders. It makes her opponents sense her confidence level and go at her.  But lately, there has been much improvement probably because she has a psychological trainer, Gayatri,” Ghosh said, Akula’s approach has now become tougher.

Her father Praveen Kumar said she is a calm person off the court but once on the court, she is a fierce athlete.

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Table tennis, a family affair of Akulas

Kumar was a table tennis player in his college days. However, an accident cut short his career.

Nonetheless, he pushed his elder daughter, Ravali, to pursue table tennis to keep her away from television and other electronic gadgets.

Sreeja Akula family

Sreeja Akula with her mother Sai Sudha, father Praveen and elder sister Ravali. (Supplied)

“She (Ravali) was also a school national-level gold medalist. However, she had to discontinue playing during her intermediate days as her college did not allow it. However, she resumed it during her engineering course and even captained her university,” Kumar, who works as a manager in an insurance company, said.

Sreeja was inspired by her sister winning laurels. “At the age of nine, first, she joined the St Paul’s Academy in Basheer Bagh, then the YMCA in Narayanguda, and then shifted to Somnath Ghosh’s academy that was situated initially in Khairatabad,” Kumar said.

The soft-spoken younger Akula is a BCom graduate, “a gold medalist in intermediate college as she topped with 98.7 percent marks”, the proud father said,

The paddler is now eyeing a ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics. “While the World Team Table Tennis Championships offers the team quota, there are multiple upcoming feeder, contender, and other tournaments before the Olympics for her to make the cut,” Ghosh said.

Telangana State Table Tennis Association (TSTTA) Secretary Nagendra Reddy expressed confidence over Sreeja qualifying for the Paris Olympics.

“She would be qualified by her current world ranking (49). I believe that she is ready to get a medal for our great country,” Reddy, who also coached Sreeja in her initial days, told South First.