Italian coach Massimo Costantini returns for his third stint as Indian table tennis coach. The 66-year-old, who coached India from 2009 to 2010 and from 2016 to 2018, is a proven achiever as he oversaw India winning a record eight medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and two bronze medals at the 2018 Asian Games.

What are some of the major changes you’ve seen in players since your last stint ended here in 2018?

Massimo Costantini: I’ve seen very visible changes in most players. I’ve been following all the players in my role at the ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation). I had been monitoring them. There is a level of maturity among them that was not there before. Maturity and responsibility were lacking. You can argue that they are older now but even the younger players that are coming through the ranks are more responsible. Mind you, they didn’t have a head coach for six years. That’s a long time. For some reason, no coaches came. So the players got much more responsible and started doing things on their own.

It’s not just the players that have improved but the whole table tennis ecosystem has become better. The Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) with Kamlesh Mehta (general secretary) at the helm has become far more professional. Even the government with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) is committed to making things happen. Quite frankly, it wasn’t like this in my previous two stints. There is a common drive to make India a leading sports country and all the stakeholders are extremely committed. And that makes things very easy for any coach.

One of the first things you’ve done is seeing that the Indian contingent (Olympic squad) travels as a team for World Table Tennis (WTT) events. Is traveling as a team going to be a regular affair even after the Olympics?

Festive offer

Massimo Costantini: Of course. it has to be like this. I’ve said before that I want India to be one of the top 4 countries in the world of table tennis. We have to act like a team and the team is strong when we are united. We will have great individual results at tournaments and that’s part of the dynamics. But when the team travels together, practices together, and trains each other, it’s bound to help. Maybe we go as a team or with certain players but we need to be together.

We’ve seen at team tournaments like the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games, and the World Championships that the players are individually committed to helping the team to do well. I have the task and commitment to lead this. Since everyone is on the same page, I decided to come back. I genuinely believe that the sport can really be developed to a great extent here and I want to do my part.

Each of the top players has individual coaches who generally travel with them for competitions. Now for a head coach to come in, do you reckon there will be a certain resistance?

Massimo Costantini: We won’t be the first country to have this kind of setup. As long as we have a common view. I’m very fine with that. The individual coaches are not our opponents. If we start thinking they are our opponents, it will damage the player. Look at China and Japan. They have the same situation. Countries like Korea and Germany don’t have this setup and France have many coaches in their panel. What’s important is that we have a common goal. We have to come up with some internal rules and we are working on that.

India’s Paris team selection raised questions as Ayhika Mukherjee, who beat the Chinese World No. 1 Sun Yingsha at the World Championships, was not selected in the team. Do you think India missed a trick there by choosing Archana Kamath over Ayhika?

Massimo Costantini: The selection was not based on any choice. The criteria and parameters were defined a year before. It was not a question of choice. The criteria were objective, not subjective. The Chinese may be more scared of Ayhika rather than Archana but the selection committee cannot help that.

Look at Patrick Franziska. He’s Germany’s No. 1 player but he didn’t make the cut for Paris because he achieved that ranking after the selection took place. Imagine the no. 1 player in the country is not part of the team. He’s super upset and who wouldn’t be, but even they were clear that there was a criteria defined and the team was selected accordingly. If you have made a decision based on criteria, it is like it is. I’m sorry for Ayhika and G Sathiyan but I still need them. If we do well, it will be because of them too.

While qualifying in men’s and women’s team events is a great achievement in itself, what do the players need to do so that we can win a medal at the Olympics? What does someone like Manika Batra and Sreeja Akula need to work on?

Massimo Costantini: If I tell you, then the opponents will know (laughs). There are many areas to improve. Manika reached new heights by entering the top-25 and she has proven that she can occasionally beat players ranked higher than her. Maybe the first step is to consistently beat better players. Winning once in a while doesn’t help. In 30 matches, you beat average players and only one win against a top-10 player then your improvement is only average. That needs to change for sure. We need to prepare. Be tactically better and need to be more effective and efficient. There are about 10-14 parameters for a table tennis player.

I often give this analogy that it’s like a Formula One car where a small improvement in one component can give you an advantage over your opponents. If because of that improvement we’re able to win at least 2-3 extra points in every game, that’s going to make a big improvement.

Our women paddlers have raked up impressive results against top opponents. The use of pimpled rubber has helped. What’s your take on the use of pimples?

Massimo Costantini: I’ve always said that pimples can be a big surprise. Using rubbers with a different style can cause a major problem against players who use normal rubbers. The simple fact is that players who regularly play with normal rubbers aren’t used to playing against pimples. It’s like, if there are 20 right-handed players practicing, they will struggle against a left-hander.

95% of the players play with the same style. Then there are 5% of players who can change the rule of the rally by destabilizing the way of the play. Top players not having a habit of playing with pimples is tactically an advantage for those who play with it.

Where Indian women made history be it at the Commonwealth Games or the Asian Games, it was because we had an explosive mix of players using pimples. Now its importance is greater because the Chinese are scared of playing against pimples. The challenge for us is to use it differently. Look at how Wang Manyu lost to Manika at Saudi Smash. Manyu had beaten Manika just a week earlier in Macao but Manika was able to change her game and beat her just a week later. She could do so because she switched up her play with her defensive pimpled rubber.

Since you say that using pimples can be a huge advantage, do you recommend youngsters start playing with that rubber?

Massimo Costantini: I don’t think that a player starting out should just be told to play with pimples. And they shouldn’t use pimples just to get results either. Coaches at the grassroots need to introduce the players to all kinds of rubbers and need to see which suits them better. Coaches need to find out what the talent tells them and not impose pimpled rubbers on youngsters.