For over an hour, the North Korean pair of Chu Suyong and Pak Sugyong came up against the yellow wall of Sutirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee. They looked to play their fast natural game; firing in smash after smash only to find the Mukherjees – not related – to get into position and block. Ten errors from the North Koreans, who looked to force the issue, and a backhand winner from Sutirtha Mukherjee in the opening game gave India a 1-0 lead as it looked set for another huge scalp.
It was attritional table tennis at its best. It wasn’t pretty and wasn’t always effective, but it got the job done to take North Koreans to seven games in the semifinals and previously when they stunned China’s top pair Chen Mang and Wang Yidi. It was ‘Mourinhoesq’ – taking in the opponents’ best shots, subduing the crowd who turned up to support North Korea, and forcing them into committing errors before striking back.
But surprisingly after India won the sixth game to level the scores at 3-3, both Suthirta and Ayhika changed their game up to go on the attack and lost the first four points. Then under pressure, they crumbled further to lose their semifinal 11-7, 8-11, 11-7, 8-11, 9-11, 11-5, 2-11 at the Gongshu Canal Sports Park Gymnasium on Monday and finish with a bronze medal.
Their coach Mamata Prabhu put it down to the slow start in the deciding game. “Sixth was superb. In the seventh, they didn’t start well. I think North Koreans had a few points where they played really fantastic and they were totally out of rhythm then. Not a happy day for us, I can say,” said Mamata.
While it must have been a hard one to take, the Mukherjees who both come from Naihati, the medal will still go down as one of India’s biggest results from the ongoing Asian Games.
While being friends for 20 years helps them forge an understanding both on and off the court, they have another common thing – their equipment.
Both are subscribers of Dr. Herbert Neubauer’s rubber in their paddles which allow them to play their blocking game. Ayhika uses Dr. Neubauer’s anti-type rubber which is meant for her blocking game and has pimples on her forehand called Butterfly’s Impartial. Sutirtha has a plain backhand rubber and for her forehand uses Neubaeur’s killer, a pimple-type rubber.
And when Ayhika blocked to create the opening, Sutirtha turned killer with her strong backhand slice and forehands to trouble the North Koreans. “She [Ayhika] defends with her rubber well so I can then play that attacking shot and that was our strategy,” explained Sutirtha.
Ayhika has developed her blocking game for years since her formative years as a paddler. She saw former Germany player Amelia Solja, who is now part of Dr. Neubaeur’s team in producing rubbers, use the anti-type rubber and decided to mould her game around it.
“I have been using the anti-tye rubber since my childhood so that suits my style. The rubber is tough to use and now many Indians use this rubber but it’s difficult to use tactically also,” said Ayhika.
The anti-type rubber she uses in her forehand enables her to control the top spin on the opponent’s attacking shots. She also has a mean forehand on her where she has the ability to keep the ball low on the return and make it harder for the opponents to retrieve.
Mamata felt the four different rubbers, which the Indians have perfected their game with over the years, make it hard for the opponents to read. “It’s quite a difficult combination with four different rubbers for opponents. That’s what makes it hard for the opponents because they can have so many variations and you cannot judge. We have prepared for a month before the Asian Games,” she said.
The former India player said the girls are on an upward trajectory and more is expected from them in the years to come. Before beating the Chinese here, both Sutirtha and Ayhika beat the world no. 1 ranked Jeon Ji-hee and Shin Yubin of South Korea to win the WTT Contender title in June.
Ayhika, too, feels there is unfinished business for the pair. “It feels really surreal [having medalled]. It could have been better but what we have now, we want to use that and take it forward and change the colour of the medal now,” she said.
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