GeTTing all the aTTention

With a stunning show at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Manika Batra has become the cynosure and the new poster girl of Indian women’s sport.

Making India proud: Manika Batra at her residence in Naraina Vihar in New Delhi.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

In sports, it is always thrilling to watch an underdog produce an unexpected performance to stun the favourite. It gets even better if the performance is reproduced on the same platform when the favourite gets a chance to settle the scores.

It was all this and more when the Indian men and women table tennis players took turns to pull off thrilling performances. Exceeding all expectations, the women’s team led by Manika Batra shocked overwhelming favourite Singapore for the team gold.

If this was not enough to raise the eyebrows and expectations, Manika went on to shock three Singapore women — from the quarterfinals to the final — for the singles gold medal.

Never mind if this twin-dose of bitter pills prompts these Singapore women, nursing their bruised pride, to come hard at the six-footer from New Delhi. This 22-year-old made history at a stage where A. Sharath Kamal scripted a similar tale in the 2006 Melbourne Games. He played the leading role as India won its first ever team title and then walked away with the singles gold.

Australia, lucky venue

Come to think of it, Australia has been a lucky venue for the Indian paddlers, at least when it hosts the Commonwealth Games!

For the record, India swept the team gold medals. Silver medals came from the men’s doubles (Sharath Kamal and G. Sathiyan) and the women’s doubles (Manika Batra and Mouma Das). An expected medal from mixed doubles came from Manika and Sathiyan who scored over Sharath and Mouma in the match for the bronze. Ahead of this clash, since Sharath was due to play for the singles bronze against England’s Samuel Walker, he rightly chose to save his energies. Eventually, Sharath did sign off with an individual bronze following a clinical display.

But two other medals were unexpected. The men’s doubles bronze for Harmeet Desai and Sanil Shetty and, of course, the biggest of them — the singles gold for Manika.

The presence of the defending champion, Singapore, World Cup bronze medallist England and the unpredictable Nigeria meant India had its share of challenges in the men’s section.

Similarly, Singapore was the main rival in the women’s section, where India was expected to play the final since England was weakened without its seasoned player Joanna Drinkhall (nee Parker).

The Indian men dethroned Singapore 3-2 with Sharath pulling off his two singles. In between, Harmeet Desai and Sathiyan clinched the crucial doubles.

At this point, India was expecting England to overcome Nigeria, which was without its spearhead Aruna Quadri. But Nigeria stunned England and that made it easier for India. In the final, India raced away to a 3-0 triumph over a tired Nigeria and regained the gold after 12 years.

One for the album: Manika Batra displays her medals at her residence in New Delhi.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

 

Bigger surprise

The following day, a bigger surprise awaited the Indian table tennis fans. After Madhurika Patkar played her part to perfection against England, winning her doubles with Mouma Das, and the singles, Manika put the finishing touches to what turned out to be a historic day for women’s table tennis in the country.

In the final, Manika stunned World No. 4 Feng Tianwei in five pulsating games in the first match of the team final to give India a dream start against Singapore.

Not many, including Manika, were aware that Feng is best remembered for beating two former World No. 1 players — Ding Ning (three-time World champion and 2016 Olympic champion) and Liu Shiwen (four-time World Cup winner) in Singapore’s shock 3-1 triumph over China in the 2010 World championship final in Moscow. No wonder, the table tennis world sat up and took note of Manika’s stupendous victory.

Though Madhurika lost the next singles, she teamed up with Mouma to pull off the crucial doubles. Thereafter Manika returned to continue her dream run against Zhao Yihan in straight games and ensured the historic gold.

Indeed, India sweeping the team gold medals was the biggest news in the table tennis world that week. Congratulatory messages poured in from the President of the International Table Tennis Federation and other continental heads from across the world.

“This has never happened in my life,” said an emotionally-charged Dhanraj Choudhary, the former Secretary of the Table Tennis Federation of India, and now serving in an advisory capacity. “This triumph has brought unprecedented respect and dignity to Indian table tennis. This is indeed a landmark achievement by our players.”

But the best performance of the Games was yet to come.

Manika, minutes after losing the mixed doubles semifinals after holding match-points in the company of Sathiyan, was destined to make history.

She returned to the arena for her women’s singles semifinals against Feng. And, she again fought back from a one-set deficit to beat the three-time Olympic medallist and two-time defending champion.

Buoyed by her remarkable result, Manika went on to blank another Singapore challenger Yu Mengyu 4-0 in the final.

Manika Batra with her family members in New Delhi.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

 

Coach’s guidance

“If I made it possible, I owe it to the constant guidance of my Sir, Sandeep Gupta, who’s coach since I was four years old. Though he was in New Delhi, we were in constant touch. Before and after every match, his words helped me stay focussed.

“In fact, during the matches against Feng and Mengyu, he stayed connected with Amal Bhaiya (Anthony Amalraj, member of the gold-winning men’s team) who, in turn, relayed the instruction to me from the stands. For instance, when Mengyu made it 7-7 in the fourth game, it was Amal who shouted in Hindi, “chhoti rakh” (keep your returns short), prompting me to alter the length and place the ball closer to the net. At this point, I knew at once that these words were coming from Sandeep Sir. That boosted my confidence further and I never looked back.”

Talking about his “telephonic” guidance to Manika in Gold Coast, Sandeep said, “If I could be of help, it was due to the role played by Mr. M. P. Singh (secretary TTFI and manager of the Indian contingent) and Amalraj. I could call them any time. M. P. Bhaiya was available for the players from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. He conveyed the message to Manika personally or through Amalraj, who now trains at our Academy.”

Sandeep was also quick to remember, “In this moment of success, we should not forget the contribution made by Stag’s Vivek Kohli in Manika’s career. For well over a decade, he has been providing free equipment and apparel to Manika, and several players in the country and abroad. Apart from sponsoring National teams in over 50 countries, he lends a hand by providing annual scholarships to 60-70 children in India. In fact, he was the first to honour Manika and Amalraj when they returned from Gold Coast.”

Olympian Neha Agarwal, Manika’s long-time training partner at Hans Raj Model School in the Capital’s West Punjabi Bagh, pointed to the immense self-belief displayed by Manika that was behind her recent success. “She is one of the smartest athletes I’ve known. Her biggest strength is the ability to adapt to the situation. Particularly with the kind of rubber she plays with, you need great anticipation.”

Elaborating on the key to Manika’s success, Neha said, “Unlike normal rubber (which is an inverted pimpled rubber on the inside and flat outside), pimpled rubber reverses the spin imparted on the return. For instance, when a player plays backspin, this rubber sends back a top-spin return and vice versa. So there is great deception involved. But it is equally true that it cripples your backhand. It was criticised because you can’t attack from the backhand. Your opponent would keep hitting to your backhand and eventually force you to lose the point. That’s when Sandeep Sir made us twiddle the racquet, during the rallies, and switch to playing from the normal rubber on the other side of the racquet.

“What’s special about Manika is her anticipation — to see when should I twiddle my racquet, where should I hit it and twiddle back, move to my forehand and finish the rally from there. Since it is not easy to play with this rubber, her judgement had to be spot on when it came to choosing which side to play with for a particular ball. In fact, Manika would agree that sometimes, even she herself wouldn’t know what the rubber is doing.”

Technicalities apart, among the Indian performances, the standout show indeed came from Manika. After all, four medals, including two gold, would have easily made Manika the Indian recipient of the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, if ever there was one!