The Indian paddler spoke to Mudit Dani on a live online chat show ‘In The Sportlight’.

Reigning national table tennis champion Harmeet Desai feels the lack of tournaments due to the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened his chances to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

India missed out on securing the Olympics berth via the team event at the last world qualifiers. As per existing Olympic qualification norms, only two Indian male paddlers can qualify for the Tokyo Games in the singles category.

Seasoned campaigners Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran are strong contenders for the spots considering their world rankings, which are much ahead of Harmeet Desai. Sharath and Sathiyan are placed 31 and 32 respectively while Desai is currently ranked 72 in the world.

“We have a strong team, so it will be very difficult for me to get ahead of the top two. Sharath and Sathiyan are really strong players. It would have been much better for me if I could have got a chance to play more international tournaments in this period because I didn’t have the pressure of defending any of the points, I only had the chance to gain points after my performance at the Oman Open. Sadly, the chance is gone and I am in all likelihood missing the bus this time,” said Harmeet Desai.

The 27-year-old from Surat, who was in great form as he finished in the last four at the Oman Open just before the coronavirus outbreak, is not heartbroken but quite determined to make his Olympic debut in 2024 if he doesn’t get to qualify for Tokyo. He added, “Even though it will be difficult for me to qualify, I still hope to make it. And if not this time, I will work harder for 2024.”

Be it winning historic medals at the big-ticket events or rising high in the world rankings, Indian table tennis has seen an exponential rise in the recent years. Harmeet Desai credited the growth of table tennis in India to the Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) league and the support the sport is receiving from the government and Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI).

He remarked, “Indian TT has caught a lot of attention in the last few years with good performances in all categories. Support of government, federation and playing in UTT has played an important role in the growth of Indian TT. Indian players all this while used to go to European countries but now foreign players are also coming to India to play UTT and this has given chance for youngsters to play against them, practice with them and learn from them. This has also helped us to believe that we can beat them irrespective of how higher ranked they are.”

With the sporting world gradually getting back to normal, Desai is the first Indian paddler to travel abroad post the COVID-era and participate in the French League. He is currently training in Germany and intends to stay back in Europe and get match exposure and training opportunities in the coming few months.