April 2018: She was instrumental in getting India’s women’s table tennis out of the shadow of the men, thanks to her record haul of four medals, including two golds, at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.
September 2018: Having surged into the women’s top 50 in world rankings, she teamed up with legendary A. Sharath Kamal to fetch India its first table tennis medal at the Asian Games.
No wonder in the last 15-odd months, Manika Batra has literally become a household name. Whether she is at an airport in New Delhi, or at a coffee shop in her new training base in Pune, she is chased for autographs and selfie requests. Not to mention her regular shoots for endorsing a wide range of products and appearances at events.
Life couldn’t have been much better for a lanky girl in her early 20s, right? While she has been revelling in accolades, Manika has also undergone a tense phase on the personal front in the last year, having parted ways with her childhood coach Sandeep Gupta. For the first time since informing Gupta about her decision to move on at the start of the year — something that she had been contemplating even before leaving for the Asian Games, she says — Manika opens up about how the events over the last year affected her on and off the table.
Moments after beating the then World No. 4 Feng Tianwei in the team championship final at Gold Coast, you had said you couldn’t make out how you managed to pull it off. Have you been able to figure out how you literally changed the face of Indian women’s table tennis in just one week?
What mattered the most was the belief. Honestly, I hadn’t even thought of winning the gold medal before we left for Gold Coast. But once I reached there, I got so many positive vibrations. It was a terrific bunch to be a part of and Max (Massimo Costantini), our foreign coach, was just outstanding. It may sound hard to believe but when the tournament started, I got the feeling that I can beat anyone. It wasn’t as if I was sure to beat Feng Tianwei, but I felt that I could beat the top players. With every match, I started feeling better. I beat Feng in a best-of-five in the team championship and later in the week, since I had beaten her earlier, even though we were tied at three games apiece, I was confident of beating her. Confidence played a huge role during that week.
So how has life changed off the table in the last one year?
People know me now. After the Commonwealth Games, more people have started watching table tennis and it feels great that I have played some role in it. Before CWG, not many bothered about what’s happening in Indian table tennis, but after the glorious achievements of both the men’s and women’s teams, sports fans are following India’s paddlers regularly.
It feels great that I am recognised even when I am relaxing at a coffee shop or somewhere else. When I used to watch Saina (Nehwal) and (PV) Sindhu get all the adulation, I thought I wanted to be become like them. It feels good to have taken the first step.
Does public recognition increase the pressure of performing consistently at the highest level?
Obviously the responsibility has increased because the whole nation is pinning its hopes on me. Everyone wants me to win. If I start feeling the pressure and get bogged down, I won’t be able to perform. Instead, I take it positively and hope that all these blessings and support would have some impact on my performance in the arena.
The Gold Coast success was followed with success at the Asian Games. How much have you evolved as a player and a person since then?
The Commonwealth Games were amazing. Winning four medals was surreal. Our coach Max played a huge role in that performance. It was followed with me and Sharath bhaiya winning a historic medal. Despite all that success, I was sure that there was something missing in my training. I wanted to explore different practice partners and change the way I practised, so I decided to change my training centre. I started training at Pune’s India Khelega Academy.
Since my childhood, I used to play under Sandeep sir, but I wanted something more. With him, I couldn’t train the way I wanted, so I moved on. I wanted to change my training base immediately after Gold Coast but since there were so many back-to-back tournaments, I had to wait till the National Championship that got over earlier this year. I wanted the transition to be smooth, but it didn’t really happen that way. Sandeep sir was a little upset, so I lost my focus for a while. But now I am happy and focused on my training in Pune. And the results are there to see. I recently defeated a Chinese and a Korean paddler on the Pro Tour, so I think if I had got such intense training earlier, the results could have been even better.
After you parted ways with Sandeep Gupta, you had a dip in form for two-three months. Was it primarily because of the way the episode evolved?
It was. After the Nationals — even at the Nationals I didn’t do so well, lost to Archana (Kamath) in the semis — I had to go for the Hungary Open.
I trained with Sanmay (Paranjape), my practice partner in Pune. It helped and I did well in Hungary. After that, the Qatar Open and the Asia Cup, I couldn’t give my best since I was too engrossed in trying to convince Sandeep sir to let me be on my own. He wasn’t ready, so I was not able to concentrate on my game and couldn’t practice for some time. After a while, I had to get my act together and get my focus back on track considering all the challenges leading up to Tokyo 2020.
When the events unfold as surprisingly as they did, kisi bhi player ka focus jaayega (any player would lose focus). I was extremely upset with the negative manner in which I was portrayed in the media days ahead of the Qatar Open. I had stagnated while training at Sandeep sir’s academy. I was trying to make him realise that. Instead of changes, all I got were false promises and false hopes that things would change.
Would you say it had ended on a bitter note?
I would say every coach should let his ward explore the world if he or she wishes to do so. If he had thought the same, it would have been better for both of us. But I must thank the TTFI (Table Tennis Federation of India), especially MP Singh sir (secretary general, TTFI) who has stood behind me like a rock.
Sandeep Gupta was as good as family...
Yes, I was with him since I was four years old. But I had to think about my table tennis and take the hard call. I respect my decision and I am responsible for it. There was a phase when I would think about what will he say or how will he react. But then I thought I had to be selfish to an extent for my table tennis, so I persisted with the decision.
Are you still in touch with him?
No, not at all. I am happy in my space, training in Pune. I wish it would have ended on a better note, but life isn’t perfect, right!
There were murmurs in the fraternity that you have forgotten your roots. How would you react to it?
Even when I was with Sandeep sir, those who wanted to would obviously speak behind my back. Now I have learnt to take it in a positive way thinking that at least they are following me carefully.
I am convinced log toh bolte hi rahenge , what matters more is what those who are close to me feel about me and my game.
Now that you are on the verge of regaining your mojo, what are the targets you have set for yourself for the next 12 months?
Starting with the German Open followed by Swedish and Bulgaria Open, we have a few back-to-back tournaments. It will offer me a chance to improve my world ranking. I had slipped a bit, but I would like to break back into the top-50 and maintain it. Since the Olympics qualification is way too complex this time around than for Rio, I just want to be in the zone all the time. The first goal is obviously to qualify for the Olympics; at the same time, prepare to win a medal in Tokyo.
You and Sharath have a better chance of springing a surprise in mixed doubles in Tokyo. Do you both get time to train together?
We have been trying to train together whenever we have a break from our individual assignments. It was disappointing that we lost out on valuable match-practice since a viral infection forced me to pull out of individual events at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship (in Cuttack in July). Also we have more chances in the coming pro tours and national championships to team up and tune better for the Olympics. We are both working towards it and I hope we can do the best for the country.
With your pimpled rubber having little element of surprise on the domestic circuit, you have found it difficult to replicate international success at home. Does it affect your confidence?
Yes, it does happen that a lot of players — even in international tournaments — are getting used to my rubber. I have been learning different techniques to keep the surprise element going. I would prefer not to elaborate on it since it’s supposed to be a surprise (laughs).
But yes, when I play in India, most of my team-mates know my game well; we practice together in camps, so it does get more challenging when I face them in national tournaments. But I have got used to not letting a bad show in a domestic tournament affect my performance at the international level. I have learnt it over the years.
Can you explain your fascination for accessories related to table tennis?
I have been wearing these ear-rings (with a table tennis racquet and ball) and pendant (of the same design) and a TT bracelet for four months now. And I love wearing a few accessories related to table tennis. I am constantly on the lookout for those whenever I travel around the world for tournaments. See, I like to be dressed neat and clean and at times, I enjoy getting decked up. When I combine it with my table tennis — like the tri-coloured nail paint that I sported during the Commonwealth Games last year — I feel I end up playing better, so it’s a win-win on every count.
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