They share the same surname. They hail from the same town, not too far from Kolkata. It was their respective mother’s influence that drew them to the 9’x5’ table.
It’s no surprise that Ayhika and Sutirtha - the Mukherjees from Naihati - are best friends. And after being groomed at the same academy in their hometown, they have been reunited at the Dhanuka Dhunseri Soumyadeep Poulomi TT Academy.
No wonder then that minutes after they achieved the biggest win of their career - by stunning China’s Chen Meng and Wang Yidi in the women’s doubles quarterfinal to ensure a historic table tennis medal for India at the Hangzhou Asian Games - the duo together got on to a WhatsApp call with “Roy da” (Soumyadeep Roy) and “Pom di”.
And for most of the duration of the call, none of the four could actually speak. Most of them were just laughing their hearts out.
“It is incredible,” Roy tells Sportstar. “There was an emotional outburst. Both of them could barely speak but all of us could realise what it means for them and us together.”
Sutirtha and Ayhika’s achievement on Saturday could well go down as the biggest upsets not only in the table tennis event but also in the 19th edition of the Asian Games. Defeating a Chinese player or combination or a team is a distant dream at any multi-disciplinary event.
For the Mukherjees to have actually achieved it would definitely go down as the greatest upsets in the sport’s and Games’ history books.
For a table tennis doubles combination to succeed is a challenging task. One, unlike other racquet disciplines, both the players have to return alternate balls. And to ensure the best possible coordination, the partners have to be well-versed with each other’s technique and personality.
That Ayhika and Sutirtha have been childhood friends works to their advantage, no doubt. But the manner in which they have coordinated on the table is remarkable, considering it’s been only a year since they started teaming up together.
While Sutirtha plays with a soft pimpled rubber, Ayhika relies on her uncanny usage of long-pimpled rubbers. It usually means Ayhika controls the game, sets up the point and Sutirtha, with her powerful forehand, finishes the key points off.
The ploy worked wonders for them en route to a World Table Tennis Contender title in Tunisia in June - a first by an Indian women’s pair. When it came to scaling another high on Saturday, the duo changed its approach.
Despite legendary Ma Lin in the Chinese duo’s corner, Ayhika and Sutirtha changed their approach to befuddle their fancied opponents. While Sutirtha played the waiting game for most of the match, it was Ayhika who executed the aggressor’s role.
Credit should also be given to India women’s coach Mamata Prabhu for timing the time-out in the fourth game to perfection. With the Indian pair leading 8-4 in the fourth - just three points away from sealing the deal - sensing the change in the Chinese approach after the next point, Mamata signalled a time-out at 8-5.
“The service was in our hand so we had to capitalise on it. And I could sense that their forehand was exposed so I had to tell them to change flanks. It worked both in terms of strategy and getting them relaxed,” Mamata says from Hangzhou, after enjoying a celebratory dinner with her wards.
“We had taken the doubles preparation very seriously. During the national camp in Bengaluru, for the first time, we invited the Under-15 national champions as doubles sparring partners for Sutirtha and Ayhika and they have delivered yet again.”
That 60-second break gave the Mukherjees a breather to reorganise their thoughts and register a sensational win, which was sensational on multiple counts.
For India’s table tennis contingent, it was a reason to rejoice after multiple near-misses.
The men’s team, Manika Batra in women’s singles and Manush Shah and Manav Thakkar in men’s doubles had all suffered the so-near-yet-so-far syndrome in quarterfinals. But the Mukherjees ensured Indian table tennis will return from the Asian Games with a medal for the second edition in succession.
From an individual perspective as well, Ayhika and Sutirtha have a lot to celebrate. Both have experienced a topsy-turvy ride since being a part of the Jakarta Asian Games in 2018.
Sutirtha was at the centre of the Tokyo Olympic controversy, which resulted in Roy being released as national coach and an administrative overhaul in TTFI. While Batra - who had accused Roy of asking her to tank the Olympic qualification match - continued to focus, Sutirtha found it a tough blow to deal with before regaining her mojo earlier this year.
Ayhika, meanwhile, has been on a downhill since the Jakarta games. Not only did she fail to make the cut for all the multi-disciplinary games but was also troubled with a back injury. Add to it her brief move away from Roy and Poulomi’s academy and her performance and ranking dipped.
Ever since she has returned to the coach couple’s academy last year, Ayhika has steadily rediscovered her mojo, added a new dimension to her usage of soft pimples and has excelled in doubles and singles.
“Both Poulomi and I have played multiple Asian Games but in our coaching career, this is the best moment so far. Being competitive at the Asian Games table tennis event is as difficult as - if not more than - the Olympics,” says Roy.
“You can be proud if one of your students wins a medal at this stage. When both the students combine together as a team, it is inexplicable.”
Not just for Roy and Poulomi, the feeling of the first all-women’s table tennis medal at Asian Games is “surreal” - as stated by the legendary A. Sharath Kamal in a text message - for the entire table tennis fraternity in India.
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