In conversation with Marcelo Aguirre, International Table Tennis Federation’s Kabir Nagpal gazes across the state of play in his home country of Paraguay, the growth of the sport in Latin America as well as what is next to come.
Kabir Nagpal: You have played in various European Leagues, how is it different from the competitive play in Paraguay?
Marcelo Aguirre: I’m actually playing my second year in the Bundesliga, my club first was TTC Zugbrücke Grenzau; this season it is SV Werder Bremen. We qualified for play the play-offs this year. There’s a lot of differences playing the leagues in Europe as you compete with the best players in the world, whereas there is lack of the same in Paraguay. You need to practise hard and always give the maximum so that you can to give the point for your team during the entire 10 months.
KN: Did you have any table tennis role models growing up? If so, who were they and why did they act as an inspiration?
MA: I had some idols when I was young. I followed and saw many videos from the Swedish Team (Waldner, Persson, Appelgren and Karlsson) – they inspired me because they won against China and I wanted to be like them in the future. My idol since I was 13 years old is Timo Boll, as he inspired me with his style of play and the way he behaves with his fans. I think he is one the best athletes in his country and in table tennis.
KN: What would you consider to be your best career performance and why? Also is there a specific match that stands out for you?
MA: I have three moments in my career that I will never forget as they were the best tournaments in my life. The first one is when I became Latin American Champion, the second is when I won the Bolivarian Games for the second time in a row and the last one is the silver medal that I got at the Pan American Games in Toronto.
KN: You have participated at the Olympic Games multiple times. What was the experience like to represent Paraguay at the tournament and do you have any standout Olympic memories?
MA: I have participated in three Olympic Games (Beijing, London and Rio). For me it is an honour to represent my country and I feel very proud to carry my flag during such an important tournament. It is the best feeling that an athlete can get in life, if there’s one thing that I will never forget it is when I just arrived at the dining hall for first time and I met all the best athletes from all sports and all over the world, it was amazing to share these days around them.
KN: What do you like to do away from table tennis to relax? Do you have any interesting hobbies?
MA: Normally I spend time with wife, family and friends, see some movies, play PlayStation and I like to also play football a lot or any sports with friends.
KN: Who would you say has been the toughest opponent you have ever faced and why?
MA: The toughest opponent I faced in doubles was Xu Xin and Zhang Jike, because as everybody knows they are two of the top Chinese players in the world. In singles for me it is Hugo Calderano from Brazil because I think he is actually one of the best players in the world and he always manages to win many titles and the hardest matches in difficult moments.
KN: How did your table tennis journey begin? How were you introduced to the sport?
MA: My start in sport was with tennis when I was seven years old. After I practised and played some tournaments, my father who was a table tennis player told me that I have talent to play sports with rackets. He took me to try table tennis and after some days of playing I felt that this was the right sport for me. Since that moment I started to practice and play tournaments in South America until I got the scholarship from ITTF to play in Europe when I was 13 years old.
KN: What is your view on the current state of Paraguayan table tennis and do you think there’s a bright future ahead for table tennis in the country?
MA: Definitely table tennis in Paraguay is getting better and better in the last 10 years. We have been able to bring so many medals for the country and people have started to practise table tennis and are more interested to know about the sport. Paraguay is working hard with the young players and scouting to find new talents in all over the country to have a good future in the sport.
KN: What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from your career in table tennis? What advice can you offer to players who are just starting their careers?
MA: I have learned a lot things during all these years playing table tennis, one of the biggest is that you can never enter a match thinking that you will not win because this can change so many things during one game or a final match. The advice that I can offer to young players is to work hard, believe in yourself and your dream will come true.
KN: How have you been keeping busy during lockdown? What methods have you used to keep yourself fit?
MA: I have been very active during this lockdown, with two or three sessions of physical practice per day because I am coming back from an injury. I am working with my physical coach from our Olympic Committee and we built together a schedule to follow during these months of lockdown. Because of this I’m hoping to make a faster comeback when we start to play again.
KN: Have you been able to return to normal training? If so, how have things been progressing since the return to training?
MA: Yes, we already started to practise around three weeks ago here in Germany because in June we will play the Bundesliga semi-finals and I have to be ready for that big event for my team. Since I started to play again, things are going in the right direction as I try to come back to a normal routine to get into shape faster.
KN: You’ve enjoyed a great career in table tennis. What are your aims for the future, beyond the sport?
MA: I believe that still I can give a lot as a player. My biggest aim for the future is to reach the Top 50 in the World Rankings, followed by trying to win any ITTF World Tour tournament while working hard to be at a fourth Olympic Games. That will be a great achievement for me and my country because there has never been an athlete from Paraguay at four Olympic Games.