Khel Now logo
HomeSportsIPL 2024Live Score
Advertisement

Table Tennis

'I want to enter top 10 in the future,' TT sensation Sreeja Akula outlines her goal

Published at :April 14, 2024 at 5:22 PM
Modified at :April 14, 2024 at 7:39 PM
Post Featured Image

(Courtesy : WTT)

Ankhi Dutta


Recently, Sreeja Akula broke into top 40 for the first time in her career.

Sreeja Akula’s journey in table tennis, from the backstreets of Naveen Nagar in Hyderabad where she trained under her coach Somnath Ghosh in a one-room Global Table Tennis Academy with just one table available to the Paris Olympics, has been incredibly inspirational.

Introduced to the sport by her elder sister, the 25-year-old double national champion was part of the Indian women’s team that secured a team quota for the Paris Olympics by reaching the quarterfinals of the World Team Table Tennis Championships 2024. Although India were knocked out by Chinese Taipei in the quarters, they secured a place at Paris via the rankings route.

Now in the middle of a fine run on tour, which was cemented by her reaching a career-high World No. 40, Sreeja spoke to Khel Now in an exclusive chat where she recalled her early days, recent highs in performance as well as nearly pulling off an upset against the mighty China at the World Team Championships in Korea.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Breaking into career-best top #40 in World Rankings

At the WTT Feeder Corpus Christi 2024, Sreeja Akula secured the top podium spot in the women’s singles event, earning her first international title. The paddler from Telangana advanced to the final via a thrilling 3-2 (11-9, 9-11, 11-1, 6-11, 11-9) quarter-final victory over top seed Amy Wang and a 3-1 win over Stephanie Loeuillette. She continued her fine form and also clinched the WTT Feeder Beirut II title.

Courtesy of these titles and an overall fantastic run so far in 2024, Sreeja has breached the top #40 in the world rankings this year, marking it the first time India has two women’s singles players in the top #40 — Manika Batra is ranked World No. 38 as per the last update on April 9.

“Yes, I’m overjoyed. I always hoped to take home an international senior crown and the first one in Corpus Christi holds a special place in my heart. The second one is also extremely precious, but first always has a special place,” said Sreeja.

Regarding the career-best ranking, she added, “It’s just the beginning, I entered top #50 one month ago and now top #40. I want to enter top 10 in the future.”

Pushing China at World Team Championships

India came close but eventually fell short of causing an upset over the formidable China at the World Team Championships earlier this year. Facing China in their first group fixture at the Championships, India were certainly the underdogs. China, home to the current top-five ranked paddlers in the women’s singles division, had never lost two matches at the World Table Tennis Team Championships since 2010.

The fixture started with World No. 1 Yingsha Sun facing India’s Ayhika Mukherjee, then ranked #155 in the world rankings. Sun had never lost a team match in 26 appearances. But Ayhika, Sreeja recalled, was up for it—”She was quite excited to play against her and very invested.”

As it turned out, Ayhika, known as the “Dragon Slayer” in China, pulled off the biggest upset of the year with a 3-1 win over the Chinese World No. 1. But, that wasn’t the end just yet. After China had drawn level through Wang Manyu’s win over Manika, Sreeja was scheduled to face then World No. 2 Wang Yidi.

Sreeja recollected her thoughts from that moment — “To tell the truth, throughout the match, I did not think about the score at all. I was only thinking about how this match would go and what to play.” Sreeja went on to stun Yidi in a dominant straight games fashion, to put India 2-1 ahead in the tie.

“I felt so much more confident after that match. Everyone was caught off-guard when India went 2-1 up. I feel that my belief in myself was the most important factor. To think that I’m capable of doing it, that was, I believe, the key,” Akula shared on the biggest win of her career.

India led 2-1 after the Ayhika-Sreeja heroics but fell short of creating history, with China rallying to win the final two matches and clinch the tie.

Sreeja though has no regrets about it. “We were aware that we had to play to the best of our abilities. The Chinese squad might have been under pressure, but we were at ease since we had nothing to lose,” she stated.

Training camp in Taiwan before Olympics

She will soon head for a 10-day training stint in Taipei under coach Liu Jun-Lin as part of her preparation for the upcoming Paris Olympics. Hyderabad though will be her training base as she chases Olympic glory in Paris.

“I haven’t had any training overseas yet,” Akula said. “I’m only going so I can acquire quality sparring variations. My coach will be travelling with me to provide guidance, as we are partners there. Thus, it will just be a 10-day training camp that we have organized.” She is next set to compete at the ITTF World Cup in Macao, which begins from April 15.

Thoughts on family support

Even as she prepares for a maiden shot at Olympic glory and is gradually hitting her peak, Sreeja has not forgotten her roots and what propelled her to become a paddler. She recalled how financial limitations prevented her father from taking up the sport professionally and how it was his unrealized dream that kindled her own aspirations in the sport.

Sreeja Akula Beirut Title
Sreeja Akula with coach Somnath Ghosh after winning the WTT Feeder Beirut II title (Courtesy: @sreejaakula31/Instagram)

“My father played table tennis during his school days. Financial constraints barred him from turning professional,” said the current WR #40 paddler. “He would accompany my sister to her table tennis matches and it was she who inspired me to start playing. Since our family didn’t have a legacy in sports; my sister played until the 10th grade before parents asked her to pursue engineering.

“Over time, as they became more acquainted with the sports world, they pushed me to take up sports. I believe my sister’s influence also played a role in their decision.”

Inspiration

While her sister influenced her decision to take up table tennis, Sreeja looks up to the legendary Sharath Kamal—who she calls Sharath “bhaiya” out of respect—as her inspiration in the game. Sharath, who at the age of 41 has once again climbed back into the top 40 in the world rankings, was also recently named as India’s male flag-bearer for the Paris Olympics 2024.

Sreeja paired with her idol to clinch the mixed doubles gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Reflecting on that experience, she shared, “It was an entirely other emotion. Playing with him at first made me feel incredibly honoured. I believe that because of how amiable he was, I never felt like I was playing with such an experienced player. He put me at ease and I believe that we bonded well. The tournament was fantastic.”

“I’ve been watching Sharath bhaiya (brother) since I was a child and have been admiring his talent. He is my inspiration.”

For more updates, follow Khel Now on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram; download the Khel Now Android App or IOS App and join our community on Whatsapp & Telegram

Advertisement
Advertisement