Updated May 20th, 2024 at 17:51 IST

In his third stint as TT coach, Costantini wants India to be at par with China, Japan

Italy's Massimo Costantini is back in India to coach the national table tennis team for a third time and his main goal is to put the country at par with the sport's traditional powerhouses China and Japan.

Massimo Costantini | Image:Olympics.com
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Italy's Massimo Costantini is back in India to coach the national table tennis team for a third time and his main goal is to put the country at par with the sport's traditional powerhouses China and Japan.

Costantini has been handed charge of the squad for two years with a contract extension clause for another couple of years.

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India had won a then record five medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi in his first stint before he returned to coach the country to an unprecedented two medals at the 2018 Asian Games, ending a 60-year drought.

Following the team's historic outing in Jakarta, the Italian joined the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) as its High Performance Manager before arriving in India last week, a country he calls second home, for "unfinished business". Prior to his return, India did not have a head coach for six long years.

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Want to take India at par with China, Japan and Korea ================================== His immediate task is to prepare the men and women squads for the Paris Olympics, where India has qualified for the team events for the first time.

"I am here for unfinished business. I have always seen big potential in India to become a powerhouse in table tennis. And I like to be someone that can contribute to the success.

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"We have done well in the previous two tenures. Time will tell if we can do even better. So even better means to aspire something big in the Olympics. And that is the biggest motivation.

"Then India always is my second place to check, to see the players performing internationally. Always a special attraction...," Costantini told PTI in an interview on Monday.

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His immediate task is to help the men's and women's teams reach the quarterfinals of the Paris Olympics and the long-term goal is to be recognised as a top-four table tennis nations alongside China, Japan and South Korea.

"The Olympics is some sort of appetizer and just only two months away. And so, just to understand what's going on, since I left, the world has changed completely." Sixteen teams will fight it out in the two team events while India will also field couple of players each in the individual events.

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"The ITTF circuits have been rebranded as World Table Tennis with all the new rules, rankings. Players have become more matured in planning their own training and competition with personal coaches. Everything has changed, so I need to learn first before teaching.

"One thing I know is, that if we want to be a table tennis powerhouse like China, and this is my goal, we need to change a little bit. We need to think bigger.

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"We need to strengthen the coaches, the players' awareness, plan better. My model is always China, Japan, Korea. For the last three decades and more, they have always been at the top. They never have ups and downs," said the 66-year-old.

Manika Batra, who reached a career high ranking of 24 last week, and veteran Sharath Kamal will lead the eight-member contingent, including reserves, in Paris.

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Both have had a memorable 2024 thus far with the 41-year-old Sharath reaching the quarterfinals of the top-tier Singapore Smash and Manika doing the same in Saudi Arabia to break into the top-25.

Wins overs the top-ranked Chinese and Japanese were unthinkable a decade ago but of late, the Indians have shown they can breach that wall.

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However, Costantini feels more consistency is needed to break into the top-10 barrier and win an Olympic medal.

"I always say that to play Olympics, it's not just a competition like all the others. It requires really big maturity. Having qualified the first time, we are like beginners. So we need more experience.

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"So far, India never had players in top 10. Now we have great results recently, Manika in the top-25. So there's a long way to go. We are like an underdog, and other countries are afraid of our players. And so we have to play smart with strong psychology.

"We need to have more good days than bad days. We can't win one good match and lose one bad match," he said referring to the performance trends of the Indian players.

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Enough kids playing table tennis in India ========================== Costantini also feels that there is no shortage of players in India and therefore, a better structure is needed to get the best out of them.

Sharath, who will be featuring in his fifth and final Olympics, is expected to retire after the Games, leaving a massive void. However, the Italian coach is not overly worried.

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"There are four players in top 100. This is thanks to the volume of the players available.

"So I don't think it would be a big problem, but we need champions. Sharath is a champion, he was a champion. Every player in India wants to emulate him for his behaviour, for his humbleness and many good things." Playing with pimpled rubber is way to go against Chinese ==================================== Whether it was Manika beating the world number two Wang Manyu this month or Ayhika stunning the world number one Sun Yingsha earlier this year, players with pimpled rubbers have produced sensational results.

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"Recently, I gave an interview to a major Chinese publication, they reached me out asking about the success of India and what is the future of the pimpled rubber? In China, they don't trust that rubber much, but they were very impressed that China was about to lose to India.

"Playing with the pimples gives the opportunity to explore so many other abilities (like slowing the pace of the game to get in attacking positions against fast-paced Chinese)," he said referring to the Indian women's team's narrow loss to China in the World Championships.

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Published May 20th, 2024 at 17:51 IST