When it looked like Goa Challengers were on their way to their maiden Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) final an explosive Sharath Kamal brought Chennai Lions back from the dead earning his team a date with Dabang Delhi in the final of the Ultimate Table Tennis at the Thyagaraj stadium on Saturday.

Goa took a handsome lead through their top star Cheng I-Ching and by the end of the second game were sitting comfortably 5-1. However, India’s top star Sharath despite the 1-5 deficit, collected three points with Germany’s Petrissa Solja in the Mixed Doubles and returned to win two more against Amalraj Anthony in a tense reverse Men’s Singles.

That set the stage for two young ladies from India, Madhurika Patkar and Archana Kamath, to step into the spotlight. Needing two points from the last tie, both went for broke and produced yet another exhilarating finish in the semifinals.

Madhurika easily lost the first set 6-11 but showed remarkable poise and confidence to spurt to a 9-1 lead in the second. But Archana clawed back to 6-9 before fading away. In the decider too, Madhurika looked set for an easy win at 9-5 and 10-6.

But Archana saved 4 match points to take this semifinal to the golden point too. It, however, proved to be Mahurika’s day, who forced Archana into a mistake, taking Chennai Lions into the title round.

In the opening Women’s Singles, Taiwan’s Cheng I-Ching brought her A game to the table, coming back twice from behind to overpower Germany’s Petrissa Solja 11-7, 11-9, 11-8 for a 3-0 early lead for Goa.

Petrissa, placed 24th in world rankings, raced ahead in the first set and again in the third, but Cheng drew upon her experience to negate the advantage on both occasions. Cheng launched a strong comeback and displayed some exquisite shots en route to her crucial win.

In the men’s singles, Goa’s Alvaro Robles (No. 84) took the first set from a higher-ranked Tiago Apolonia (No. 71) on the golden point. Apolonia fought back in the second to register Chennai’s first point. The third proved to be a visual delight, with Tiago attacking vigorously and Alvaro defending gamely.

Alvaro was in the zone, simply retrieving everything and unnerving Tiago. The Portuguese wilted under the pressure and lost the third 3-11 to give Goa a massive 5-1 advantage.

Sharath entered the fray at this stage, and riding on his potent forehand, turned the tie around. He and Petrissa won the first two sets comfortably 11-5, 11-4.

The third one, suddenly, became tense as Amalraj Anthony-Cheng I-Ching got their act together. The scores moved mostly on serve, all the way till 8-8 before Sharath orchestrated the next 3 points. In the reverse Men’s Singles, a charged up Amalraj broke away from Sharath at 4-4 and pocketed the first tie11-5. Sharath came into his own in the second, moving to 6-3 quickly. He capitalised on that to take a crucial point for his side. The third set was a humdinger, with the match fluctuating from one team to the other. Sharath took a handy 4-1 lead but a series of mistakes saw Amalraj jump ahead 6-4. He inched away to 9-8 before Sharath cooled down to whip out three straight winners.

So near and yet so far..

Goa Challengers had a dream start. Cheng I-Ching set the ball in motion with a convincing 3-0 win over Petrissa Solja. That was a start that enabled Alvaro Robles assert his supremacy over Tiago Apolonia 2-1.

At the end of the second game, the tie score read 5-1. The score after round two when both teams had met in the league stage was 3-3 thus leaving Goa with a distinct four point lead before the start of the doubles.

Goa challengers coach Bettine Vriesekoop had forewarned before the start of the competition that “the doubles match will be crucial” and Goa challengers succumbed to Chennai Lions 0-3 just allowing their opponents a good peek into the tie.

Captain Anthony Amalraj started the seconds’ men singles with the tie score reading 5-4. He won the first thus extending Goa’s lead to 6-4 but succumbed in the next two leaving the Tie, tied at 6-6 and the onus on Archana Kamath- the wonder girl of team Goa Challengers. Needing two games to see Goa in the final in its maiden appearance, Archana set the tone by winning the first (tie 7-6), tripped, got up and tripped in the second to let all eyes on the decider. When it looked all was over, Archana took the match to set point, to lose after a breathtaking contest bringing to an end an amazing first season for the team from Goa.

Mixed Doubles muddle: Bettine

It was a good fight but I think it was the mixed doubles game that really pulled us down. The game could have been different had we at least managed to get a point from the mixed doubles. I do not know what happened. They just could not absorb the game from the start,” Goa Challengers coach Bettine told The Navhind Times from New Delhi after the semifinal loss.

The players could not counter attack and there was no flow in their game,” added Bettine.

The team basically depended on I-Ching right through the tournament. We were in trouble when she was injured and were up when she started the game. But, a team cannot depend on one individual. But, overall, I think they played very well,” said Bettine when asked to surmise the performance of the team through the tournament.

I really do not know what happened to us during the mixed doubles. We never lost 0-3 in the tournament. Had we won one match, the tie would have had a different complexion. We should have won the Tie today. I really cannot understand what happened. I am sad,” said Goa Challengers captain Anthony Amalaraj.

We lost what was in our hands: Vero Nunes

We lost what was in our hand. Before the start of the mixed doubles I was sure that Goa was going to win the Tie. However, the mixed doubles game turned the tide completely against us,” Goa Table Tennis Association (GTTA) President Vero Nunes told The Navhind Times from New Delhi.

Archana started the last game with all responsibility on her. The task was too big for a girl of her age to surmount though she did give a fight till the end. But, it was evident that her task would be difficult. The pressure for a girl of her age was too much,” lamented Vero.

I will be returning back home with sad feelings because Goa were really there. Their start was the best and unexpected as was their mixed doubles game. I did not expect the game to start so well and to end so disappointingly,” said Vero.

The nice thing was that Goa has been well pinned in India’s table tennis map. This is a good start for all of us in Goa and we expect to go forward in the years to come,” concluded Vero.