Physical and mental training in India, basic techniques in Germany and Japan for sharpening speed and reactions.

At 16, Diya Chitale already has the planning and training schedule of a top-level, senior pro athlete. She has been going to Germany to train with former India coach Peter Engel since she was 13. In the last year, she has added Japan to her schedule to get used to the Asian style, with head coach Sachin Shetty travelling with her to train under Koichi Takeya. The aim is to pick the best of tutelage from these countries and create a unique style that is rare for an Indian player.

It may seem like a big investment given her young age, but for Chitale and ‘Team Diya’, as her support staff is called on her official website, it’s the foundation needed to sharpen her basics and prepare her for the big stage right from the junior level, where she has been doing well in the last couple of years.

The recently crowned double national (junior and youth) table tennis champion is a prodigious talent, but with her international exposure, the backing of a full-fledged team which includes Indian table tennis legend Kamlesh Mehta, she is leaving no stone unturned to turn the potential into consistent results.

Consistent is an operative word as the season gone by hasn’t been an easy one. Despite her behind-the-scenes work, she had mixed results at the international level. The Mumbai girl secured her first title on the ITTF World Junior Circuit at the Ghana Junior and Cadet Open, along with three gold medals, but she didn’t have a good result at the crucial World Junior Table Tennis Championships, winning just two matches.

The season ended on a strong note when she became the first paddler since Archana Kamath to win both titles at the UTT 81st Junior and Youth National and Inter-State Table Tennis Championships last month. She is currently at her career-best rank, at No 35 in the juniors and No 73 in Under-21.

“The world championships weren’t as good but it was a learning experience. I think it was good from the sense that I got to learn a lot and understand what I still need to improve,” said Chitale.

Chitale added: “In a few tournaments, I lost to lower-ranked players and I was not feeling so confident about my game. But then I started practicing more, and also worked a lot on my mental aspect of the game with my conditioning coach, which is very important. So I think I was well prepared for the national championship,” she said, where she triumphed while playing around 10 matches a day.

“I was able to play my best game and I think it just shows that I have the capability and I just need to have confidence in myself.”

An un-Indian approach

After spending a good part of the year training in Germany and playing in the leagues there, Chitale has developed a game unlike most Indian players. Coach Shetty encourages the teen, who started playing as a hobby at Khar gymkhana as an eight-year-old, to adopt a more attacking style, even if she is in a crucial spot.

“I think I’m more on the aggressive side. In India, many people are mainly defensive and mainly block and push. But I think after playing in Germany and Japan, I have developed an aggressive game. I think I’m playing more like the boys and I like it,” she explained.

She elaborated on the difference in competition: “I think there’s a lot of difference playing abroad and India. In India, they are more defensive at this stage and are playing with different rubbers so you have to adapt quickly. When you are playing abroad it is mainly normal rubbers players, but here they are playing with pimples, phantoms so you have to adapt and change between the two.”

Adapting is a crucial part of her game as her recent foray in Japan suggests. In Japan, the penhold grip is more common than in Europe, where the shakehand grip is the norm. The game is based more on technique in Europe, while in Japan it’s all about speed.

“I kind of know what they are playing… how they do things differently so if something is useful for me that I can use it on my game. There are so many different types of techniques and I can use whatever is fitting to my game,” she explained.

Wise beyond her age, the 16-year-old has a remarkable grasp of the game and work ethic. The teen is newly out of school, scoring a superb 93% in her tenth standard board exams despite saying she studied for just a month. Her mother Reshma, who travels with her, helps her with her studies and competes with her when it comes to physical fitness challenges.

Her parents have helped built an incredible support system for the young athlete with Shetty and Engel. She has a specialised technical coach, a physical fitness as well as mental conditioning coach, a fitness trainer,a nutritionist and a sports science expert as well.

“Sachin sir, Peter, all of them like are always coordinating with each other and plan what tournaments I’m supposed to play, where and how much training I’m supposed to do. My parents are involved as well, everything just works out,” she said.

It takes a village behind all the talent and training to build a world-class athlete and Diya Chitale has all the resources to get there. With Indian table tennis poised at a promising time for the sport, she is one to watch out for.

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