Sreeja Akula
Sreeja AkulaPhoto | Express

Sreeja Akula ready to take Paris by storm

The 25-year-old from Hyderabad deems winning the title as ‘a special win’ and a confidence booster ahead of her debut Olympics beginning next month in Paris.

HYDERABAD: An ace table tennis player, Hyderabad-based Sreeja Akula is not a stranger to springing a surprise while facing tough situations. In her first game at the World Table Tennis (WTT) Contender finals, the 25-year-old was comfortably leading 10-8 in the first game against China’s 16-year-old Ding Yijie and had two game points. However, she went on to lose four straight points and ultimately the game. It was a similar situation in the second game, with the scoreboard reading 10-9. But this time the number one Indian paddler sealed the game.

The key was to not overthink and improve her spin. “The good thing was that I did not keep thinking about the setback at first and focused on the next point. It is important for any game you play. I was just trying to be more consistent and brought a major change in the top spin and also made some good variations,” Akula says.

She went on to win the next three straight games and went on to become the first Indian table tennis player to win the WTT Contender singles title in Lagos, Nigeria. The icing on the cake was that she had won the doubles event, pairing up with Archana Kamath, earlier on the same day.

Speaking to TNIE after winning the WTT title, the 25-year-old from Hyderabad deems winning the title as ‘a special win’ and a confidence booster ahead of her debut Olympics beginning next month in Paris. “It was a special win being my first contender tournament. The double titles in Lagos will considerably boost my confidence right before the Olympics,” she adds.

‘My preparation is going well for my debut Olympics. I have been working hard on my strength and conditioning apart from trying to stay injury-free. My target in the Olympics will be to create as many upsets as possible. A lot will depend on the draw too,” explains Akula. In the latest ITTF rankings, the Indian paddler jumped 19 spots to reach the career-best ranking of world number 24. Akula is now the highest-ranked Indian woman player, surpassing Manika Batra (World No. 29). “Personally, I believe more in staying focused and enjoying the process than caring about the ranking. Ultimately, the most important thing is that an Indian player stays at the top. But over the years, my aim has been to enter the top 50, then the top 30 and now the top 20,” says Akula.

‘Consistency in technique’

Akula is not new to springing surprises, as in February this year, she also pulled off a win by stunning then-World No. 2 Wang Yidi (now World No. 3) of China. “In the past year or more, I have brought consistency to my technique, especially in the first ball attack and have tried to improve my receiving too. I have also become mentally and physically stronger,’ she remarks.

Akula believes that her recent feats against top players was the result of players believing in themselves and working on their technical sides. “Everybody now believes that they can beat top players from China, Korea and other countries and enter the top 50. This has been possible with the holistic support of the government. Players are getting exposure in other countries, with dieticians and other necessary facilities. The TOPS scheme, private funds and sponsorship have played a major role too,” the 2022 mixed-doubles gold medalist says.

The champion paddler will play two more tournaments in Tunisia and Bangkok before heading to a 10-day national camp in Germany and then to Paris for the Olympics.

Along with Italian chief coach Massimo Costantini, who took charge in early May, Akula is trying to get her coach and mentor, Somnath Ghosh, accreditation. “Somnath sir is being given accreditation for practice, but I am requesting the IOA for the match accreditation. It is because he has been my coach for 14 years now, and I will feel more confident in his presence. He will be there for the camp in Germany, ‘asserts Akula.

At the age of nine, Akula first joined St. Paul’s Academy in Basheerbagh and then the YMCA in Narayanguda, before shifting to Somnath’s Global Table Tennis Academy in Naveen Nagar. “Confidence is the key for Sreeja. If the ball is coming on her racket properly, as in cricket they say, the ball hitting the bat properly, and if she feels the topspin is working, then she can create huge upsets,” Somnath tells TNIE.

The New Indian Express