Vivek Kanakamedala, an engineering management graduate student, remembers the excitement he felt when he came upon other NJIT students playing table tennis in the Campus Center Game Room. But he was a bit disappointed to learn the sport was merely a recreational activity at NJIT — so he did something about it.

Kanakamedala, who began playing table tennis in his native country of India in the sixth grade and was a state champion for six consecutive years, formed and trained a winning Highlanders table tennis team. As he prepares for his future, earning his master’s degree from NJIT this May, he is set to leave behind the players who emerged victorious in their inaugural season.

They have joined the estimated 40 million competitive table tennis players worldwide, a figure cited by the Olympic Games website. Also known as ping pong, table tennis was invented in the 1880s as a high society alternative to lawn tennis. It was introduced at the Olympics in Seoul a century later.

Team Formation

Highlanders table tennis team members (from left) Anubhav Gupta, Alex Averin, Vivek Kanakamedala and Sabarish Niranian at the 2017 NCTTA divisional.

“For two or three days, I observed each and everyone who was playing table tennis in the Campus Center,” recalled Kanakamedala of the team’s beginning. “I focused mainly on forming a team that is strong in the basics of the game, such as proper serve, and forehand and backhand cut or push.”

Once he recruited players, he arranged for them to practice in Cypress Hall, where they quickly sharpened their skills. In October 2016, the team competed against the sport’s top-ranked universities at the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association’s (NCTTA) NYC Uptown divisional tournament and beat reigning champion Princeton University (3-2) and two-time champion Columbia University (3-2).

“We participated in the tournament as underdogs. It was really a tough competition, but we held our nerve and we made it, qualifying for the regional championship,” Kanakamedala said. “Columbia University and Princeton University are the legends in divisionals. I don’t know exactly what their offense is, but we tried to stick to our basics. It was really a great experience for us.”

The Highlanders were runners-up in the NYC Uptown divisional this past February, but ranked first overall with their combined points from both divisionals. They played in the NCTTA’s regional tournament this month in Westchester against other northeastern universities, and while they did not qualify for the next level of competition, they still have much to be proud of in their first few months of participation.

Kanakamedala says he will “pass the baton” of leadership so the team continues after he graduates. He shares that it was a challenge to manage both the team and his education, but “being a sports person, I just know one thing: not to give up under any circumstances” — a beneficial approach to pursuing an engineering career as well.