Sutirtha Mukherjee elated to break into top-100

In an interview, the Bengal paddler talks about the satisfaction of achieving her goals, dealing with the lockdown, and more.

Rapid rise: Sutirtha Mukherjee’s next aim to break into the top 50.   -  S. Siva Saravanan

Indian paddler Sutirtha Mukherjee rose to a new personal high on Friday when she broke into the top-100 of the ITTF world rankings for the first time in her career. She climbed 14 places to a career-best 95th position.

“I feel great [to break into top-100]. I was quite far back in the international rankings and my initial aim was to break this barrier and I am happy to have finally achieved that. I have been playing really well,” the elated Sutirtha told Sportstar.

“My next aim is to break into the top-50. I am taking it step by step. I have to continue working harder and playing better each day,” she declared.

Breaking into the top 50 will be tough and the Bengal paddler is fully aware of the challenge. Ever since the points system changed, more top players have been increasingly taking part in World Tour events. That has resulted in frequent and tougher competition besides the schedule becoming tighter and more tiresome.

“I will have to perform better [on the Pro Tour] and advance to the later stages of the international tournaments. Now, the more rounds you win, the more points you gain. Those who are looking to take their rankings up drastically need to play more often as there are points just for participation,” Sutirtha, the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, explained.

Olympic jolt

In January, the Indian women’s team crashed out of the World Team Qualification event for the Olympics. The biggest positive from the tournament in Portugal was one of Sutirtha’s “most famous” victories over World No. 24 Bernadette Szocs. As a result, expectations grew from Sutirtha and most backed her to seal a Tokyo Olympics berth at the single’s qualification event in April. But as fate would have it, she and the rest of the world would need to wait.

“[Postponing the Olympics] was the right thing to do. It would have been very difficult to execute the event because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many countries would not have participated. On the flip side, I’m gutted that it happened because I had a very strong chance of qualifying. I was in good form but there was nothing we could do,” Sutirtha said.

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When asked if these expectations were burdening or encouraging, she said: “Once you reach a certain level, then expectations of you are bound to increase. The same thing with the Olympic qualification. People will expect it because we are talking about the Olympics here. But it’s better not to feel or think about pressure and concentrate more on your game.”

Bouncing back

Sutirtha is familiar with the feeling the frustration and pressure for not being able to perform as per expectations. The two-time national champion has faced bigger setbacks but always bounced back stronger, including becoming India’s No.1 in the year of her return after serving a one-year ban by the TTFI for age-fudging.

“Yes, it came as a big shock to me. For the first days into the ban, I was extremely low and disappointed and especially because next year was an Olympic year. But I thought to myself that if I let this get to me and give up, I will never be able to make a comeback. And hence, I resumed training. I continued to play and maintain fitness. I am grateful to have received the kind of support I did from my parents, my coach and many others. After that, I became India No. 1 next year,” she said.

Sutirtha Mukherjee displays the winner's medal after clinching the women's singles titles in the 81st senior national and inter-State table tennis championship in Hyderabad on February 02, 2020. Alongside her is coach Soumyadeep Roy. - G. RAMAKRISHNA

 

Sutirtha also revealed that with the help of her mental coach, meditation and her family, she worked vigorously towards building her mental strength and letting go of any unnecessary distraction or pressure. “The best way to deal with [pressure], I feel, is to keep playing as much as you can. Once you start playing more tournaments abroad, you will start winning more matches and that will automatically prove to be a huge morale-booster. Moreover, I also feel that this is something an individual has to work on and figure out by themselves. Nobody can tell you to take less pressure till you start doing so,” she said.

Fitness and shadow-practice

As the coronavirus pandemic has brought the entire world to a standstill, sporting activities, too, have come to a halt. Sutirtha, who is currently home in West Bengal, is dedicating most of her time towards improving her game and maintaining fitness. “In the morning, I work on fitness. Every evening, I again do fitness alongside shadow-practice with the main focus on improving my movements,” Sutirtha said.

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The 24-year-old goes to a nearby ground to carry out her exercises with the help of her coach, Soumyadeep Roy.

“I am in constant touch with [Soumyadeep]. In the evening, he conducts the fitness session and tells me what to do over video calls. My training regime includes running, skipping and I also make use of the ladders and cones,” she added.

Even when she is not training, Sutirtha is either in the company of books or YouTube. “I love to read books. I sometimes watch TV but mostly on YouTube. I mainly watch my old matches and try to analyse my game,” Sutirtha said.

A fan of Saina Nehwal and P. V. Sindhu, the paddler is also stealing time to catch up with her “favourite sport” - badminton.

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