A few hours before Novak Djokovic tore his shirt open in celebration after winning the 2012 Australian Open tennis tournament, Anthony Amalraj was hopping on a table.

Unlike Djokovic, who bared his chest to applauding fans at Melbourne Park and to millions on television, Amalraj’s moment of euphoria resulted in a fine.

At long last: Anthony Amalraj after winning his maiden national table tennis title. By PTI

Amalraj, with one act of unconventional table manners, had shaken the sedate world of the sport, unused to anything beyond a polite handshake. Indeed, international football allows celebration far more manic than a small climbing feat.

“I was so happy that my 15-year-old dream (of winning a national title) came true that I could not hold back. Umpires will not understand what sacrifices I have made to get this," says Amalraj, now back home in Chennai after paying a fine of 1,000 (reduced from 25% of his winnings of 2.1 lakh after he apologized).

The dramatic act, however, does not take away the merit of Amalraj’s achievement that took many years to realize. The 26-year-old has remained mostly in the shadows of the better-known six-time national champion Achanta Sharath Kamal, the man he beat in the Lucknow final 4-2 (11-8, 11-8, 12-10, 9-11, 7-11, 11-8). It was not the first time Amalraj, No. 251 in the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) January rankings, defeated Kamal, ranked 79. For example, earlier this season, Amalraj beat him in the inter-institution championships (played between various divisions of the Petroleum Sports Control Board or PSCB, such as Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd, which employs Amalraj), but this victory was still the sweetest.

“I have seen people younger than me become champions," says Amalraj. “I have never won the national title in any age category. At 26, I also felt that time was running out for me.

“They gave me a card and a fine but I had by then got what I wanted. If I had lost again, I would have been nothing. There was just so much pain that I cried and screamed because this is one moment you spend 15 years working for."

Amalraj started learning to play table tennis when he was 8 from his father Arputharaj who also played competitively. At the age of 10, he was sent to the PSCB academy in Ajmer, Rajasthan, beginning the long hunt for success at the national level. Amalraj played in all age groups, making it to the finals of the Under-12 and Under-14 categories, but the national title eluded him. In the seniors, he lost twice in the semi-finals, though he had other achievements to show, including a bronze medal in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

“I thought that maybe I was just unlucky. I have beaten Sharath a few times so that gave me confidence. Maybe I believed this was my last chance," says the right-handed player. “I felt I just could not lose this one. For two months, I worked on every possible aspect— six-seven hours practice every day, running 15-20km and working out in the gym. I felt my body and mind were both in sync."

The absence of that title had gnawed on his psyche continuously, like he had nothing left in life except table tennis. It is also, he believes, his ticket to recognition. “Let’s face it; there are many players but only one national champion. When I would see former champions like Manjit Dua, Kamlesh Mehta and Indu Puri chatting together, like it happened in Lucknow, I would always feel I should be able to belong to that group."

He says his coach, S. Raman, is the biggest reason for his success, which includes five domestic titles in a row this season. “We have been working on this for three years now," says Raman over the phone from Chennai. “It took time to understand his potential. What he needed working on, besides some technical aspects, was that he was mentally fragile. He would look at the scoreboard and play. I had to convince him to play to the point and not worry about the score. But that took time to internalize. You can’t get bogged down by numbers; look what’s happening to Sachin Tendulkar now."

Next up for Amalraj are the 20th Asian Table Tennis Championships (23 February-1 March in Macau) and the Liebherr 2012 World Team Table Tennis Championships (25 March-1 April in Dortmund), for which he will train in Austria and Germany from 10 February. More importantly is the qualifier event for the 2012 Olympics, to be held in Hong Kong (19-22 April), from where, in most probability, an Indian player will earn a ticket to London. Both Raman and Amalraj believe the latter has a chance to qualify.

“I am not that talented," says Amalraj, “and did not have the confidence. Others had 60% natural ability and made up for the rest of 40% through work. I started from zero, building it from there through personal sacrifices and sleepless nights. Here, I just climbed a table and I get misunderstood."

arun.j@livemint.com

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