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Sreeja Akula eyes top-50 spot after CWG high


High on confidence after a successful year, rising table tennis star Sreeja Akula is aiming to enter the top-50 in rankings in six months. The Hyderabad paddler completed a golden double at the nationals earlier this year, winning the singles and doubles titles. Then came a successful Commonwealth Games (CWG) debut in Birmingham where she came agonisingly close to an individual bronze before partnering the experienced Sharath Kamal to win the mixed doubles gold.

Come Wednesday, Sreeja will add Arjuna award to her trophy cabinet.

“It has been a remarkable year that saw me gain a lot of confidence,” the 24-year-old said. “I would like to continue the good work next year and enter the top 50.”

That would mean a leap of 26 places for the world No 76. A tall order one may think, but considering that she was world No 138 at the beginning of the year, it’s not entirely out of reach.

“The jump in rankings has given me a lot of confidence. The chain actually started with the nationals. Becoming the national champion was a longstanding dream and that win gave me the confidence to do well at the CWG,” Sreeja said.

She may have returned with just a solitary medal from CWG, but rubbing shoulders with some of the finest players on the circuit helped assess her game in a more holistic manner. “It was a wonderful exposure. I could see top sportspersons from various disciplines in action, which was quite inspiring. I came really close to an individual medal, which gave me a fair idea of the areas I need to work on.”

One area is the forehand. Sreeja is working with coach Somnath Ghosh to add more topspin to her forehand returns. “I am still working on it and I’d like to get more consistent at it. Besides technical skills, over the past couple of years, I have worked a lot on my fitness, nutrition, and mental strength. It’s only now that the results are beginning to show,” said Sreeja, who is supported by Dream Sports Foundation.

Sreeja’s mental reserves were tested to the limit in Birmingham when she had to turn up for the mixed doubles semi-final and the final hours after losing her singles semi-final and bronze medal playoff.

Weeping in the change room after losing to Singapore’s multiple Olympics, Asian, and Commonwealth Games medallist Feng Tianwei — the eventual gold medallist — Sreeja was comforted and egged on by her mental trainer, coach, and Sharath Kamal. An hour later, she and Sharath eked out a 3-2 win over the Australia’s Nicholas Lum and Jee Hyung-min.

The story repeated itself ahead of the mixed doubles final when she lost 3-4 to Australia’s Liu Yangzi in the bronze playoff. “It was a very difficult loss to take, especially because I played out of my skin,” said Sreeja, who made many comebacks in the match.

“My coach took me out for a meal. Sharath bhaiya told me to focus on the match at hand and try to put the disappointment behind. Those losses taught me a lot about my game as well as my mental reserves. It (mixed doubles final) was going to be my last match of the tournament, so I decided to go all out. Gold was a pleasant surprise, to be honest. No one, not even I expected me to play so well because I was absolutely shattered before the match,” she said.

“Without a doubt, winning the mixed doubles gold is the best and most special moment of my career.”

Post CWG, she reached the last-16 stage at WTT Feeder Olomouc in Czech Republic, was ousted in the first round of WTT contender in Muscat, and took silver at the National Games (all singles). At the world team championships in Chengdu, she beat German world No 14 Nina Mittelham and Egypt’s world No 30 Meshref Dina to emerge the lone bright spot. India’s campaign ended in the round of 16.

“Beating higher-ranked players gives me a lot of confidence. There was a time, maybe 2-3 years back, when I would be really intimidated against Chinese, Japanese or Koreans. I didn’t always have the belief and I would simply go all out without much conviction. Of late, I have realised that everyone is beatable. Now, in my head, I enter each match as an equal and know that if I play to potential, I can beat the best.”

The Arjuna award is a culmination of what has been a hectic year for her. “It’s the wonderful icing on the cake. As athletes, we always dream of winning international medals and getting recognised in our country. I am really excited to visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan and be a part of that ceremony.”



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