CWG 2022: Sreeja Akula's emotional, rollercoaster day ends with a shot at gold and bronze

Sreeja Akula. Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

As she smashed her forehand past her opponents, Sreeja Akula let out a cry of joy.

Moments later she was in the air, lifted clean off her feet by her mixed doubles partner Sharath Kamal. A little twirl, a kiss on the top of her head, and she was back on the ground. Sreeja and Sharath had just won an epic against Australia, 3-2, to book their place in the final of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

After the match, India's greatest ever table tennis player paid Sreeja, in her debut CWG, the ultimate compliment: 'This is the one medal that I was missing [from the CWG]... probably because I never found the right partner. I have now," he said smiling and gesturing at Sreeja. "She was fantastic today. The [opponents] expected her to make mistakes, but there were none. This is her tournament."

Sreeja stood next to him, tired, but beaming with pride.

Just an hour previously, though, she could barely lift her head. In the biggest match of her life, the 24-year-old had come oh-so-close to beating former world No 4 and multiple Olympic, Asian, Worlds and Commonwealth Games medallist Tianwei Feng of Singapore.

"When I went to the changing room, she was crying there," says Sharath. "I told her, 'Of course you feel terrible... but let's feel bad after this game. At this moment let's go get that medal.'"

Feel bad would be an understatement. The women's singles semifinal had been intense: the two players, separated by a gulf in experience and medals tally, were tied on 3 games each, 9 points each after over an hour of play.

Feng served, a brief rally, and Sreeja swung - going for a cross-court forehand that would have helped her take a crucial lead. She missed.

Sreeja, didn't shy away. She had outlasted three opponents to get here and only one of those matches had been straightforward. A 4-1 win in the first round. The next two had seen her claw her way back from 1-3 down to win 4-3 over long, draining matches. She was up for the fight.

The next point, Feng tossed it up exactly as she had in the previous point. Sreeja swung again, and connected. A fierce forehand that Feng was miles away from. 10-10

Then came two errors. A powerful forehand down the line that went too long, and a backhand that couldn't cancel out the spin, and couldn't clear the net. 10-12.

A slight figure, just turned 24, Sreeja collapsed into herself. You could feel every ounce of energy, all that stamina that had her taken her this far, drain away.

After the match, she would walk past this writer in the mixed zone, asking for a few minutes to collect herself. Visibly broken, she headed straight to the cool down area. She'd come back five minutes later, having collected her thoughts and her emotions.

"I had come in with no expectations against Feng," she said. "She's such a good player. But when the match started, I didn't think of all that."

Sreeja had come out of nowhere in 2022, becoming national champion for the first time, getting on the CWG squad by simply being in undroppable form. She has never felt better about her game. Surely, then, a shot at bronze in the first attempt of asking at a major international tournament is something to smile about?

Later, maybe. "As a player, I wished to win gold..." her voice trailed off. "But it's okay, now I just have to go all out for bronze. Besides, we have a mixed doubles semifinal coming up [Sreeja with Achanta Sharath Kamal]. We'll go for gold there."

"This is sports," she said. "We win and lose sometimes, but you have to recover and get ready for the next match as soon as possible."

An hour later, she was as good as her word. The gold medal quest is still on.