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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

Hopes high from G Sathiyan, Manika Batra at Table Tennis World Championships

Manika Batra smartly uses pimpled anti-spin rubber on the backhand side of her paddle. She has developed a technique to sometimes switch the side of her paddle during rallies and use the pimpled face to hit a forehand and surprise opponents with counter spin.

other-sports Updated: Apr 22, 2019 14:09 IST
Avishek Roy
Avishek Roy
New Delhi
File image of Manika Batra.
File image of Manika Batra.(Getty Images)
         

Fearlessness and innovation have defined Manika Batra’s and G Sathiyan’s game. At the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, the two helped India top the charts with eight medals in table tennis. They were again at the forefront when India broke new ground at the Jakarta Asian Games, winning bronze medals in men’s team and mixed doubles events, to achieve an unmatched feat.

Manika smartly uses pimpled anti-spin rubber on the backhand side of her paddle. She has developed a technique to sometimes switch the side of her paddle during rallies and use the pimpled face to hit a forehand and surprise opponents with counter spin.

Sathiyan, on the other hand, defies a lanky frame by effectively using his energy. Exploiting tight angles at high speed has been the hallmark of his game that took him to world number 28, the highest ranking for an Indian.

However, post Asian Games their careers have taken different paths. Sathiyan ruthlessly built on the success, while Manika’s progress has hit a plateau.

At the World Championships in Budapest, which started on Sunday, Sathiyan will be looking to set new benchmarks. He has been consistently going deeper into the draw on the Pro Tour. Fresh from his last eight appearance in the Asian Cup, the 26-year-old is eyeing a quarter-final berth, even thinking of a medal as he sets sights on the Tokyo Olympics.

Sathiyan’s focus

Sathiyan’s goals are charted well in advance. A support staff of four — mental trainer, fitness conditioner, nutritionist and his coach and former international S Raman, the anchor — is tirelessly working behind the scenes. There are weekly targets and long-term planning, performance reviews and course correction. Sathiyan is ticking all the boxes, says Raman. He is a man in hurry.

Sathiyan himself is dreaming of an Olympic medal. “Why not? Six years ago if anyone had told me I would be in the top 30, I would be laughing. I was around 400 in world rankings. I had lost a lot of time because of engineering. But that’s when Raman sir sat me down and made a detailed plan, and then began the process of getting a physio, trainer, and nutritionist. Each day I have been pushing the limits, trying to get better. Raman sir watches the videos of every opponent and we have Plan A, B, C ready before every match,” says Sathiyan.

Wins against top 20

Beating Chinese Taipei’s Chuang Chih-yuan, the 8th seed, and world number 14 Chun Ting Wong of Hong Kong, at the Asian Cup was a commendable achievement. And taking a game off Olympic champion and Chinese legend Ma Long in the quarter-finals was an affirmation of his rising stature in world table tennis.

“For the first time I had two wins against two top-20 players. I was able to put up a good fight against Ma Long. It gives me a lot of confidence and it was a good learning experience. I was aggressive and was able to play my game and everything came off well,” says Sathiyan.

Raman explains why Sathiyan is the most watched opponent even for the Chinese paddlers at the moment. “We have built his game in a way that he can always surprise opponents. He can hit angles that look impossible even to a top player. He just catches opponents off guard with speed, creates openings and finishes the ball,” says Raman. “For an outsider it may seem a risky shot but Sathiyan practises so diligently that those shots have become part of his muscle memory.”

Raman admits Sathiyan is not a supremely fit athlete and that’s why his game is all about taking calculated risks. “If his opponent runs around 4km in a match, Sathiyan will be doing probably half of it. That’s how efficient and effective his movement and table coverage is. It helps him conserve energy and muscle strength,” says Raman.

Breaching the Chinese bastion is difficult, but Sathiyan is prepared. “When you play well against Chinese players, it gives you a lot of confidence. Their speed and skills are different. They have great reflexes and play closer to the table,” said Sathiyan.

In contrast

While Sathiyan is expected to take confident strides in Budapest, Manika’s can be hesitant. Manika’s fearless approach at the Gold Coast CWG, where she beat the then World No 4 Feng Tianwei of Singapore twice was extraordinary. Manika powered the women’s team to a gold medal before triumphing in singles too. Her achievements fetched her International Table Tennis Federation’s (ITTF) “Breakthrough Star” award.

But there is nothing much to show in terms of performances for the Delhi girl in the last six months. The results have dried up. She is without a coach after parting ways with childhood coach Sandeep Gupta earlier this year. Of late, she is mostly seen on billboards asking people to come out and vote as brand ambassador of Delhi Election Office. Her preparation has not been smooth as she switched base to Pune last month to train with former India player Sanmay Paranjape.

‘India needs Manika’

Manika will have to reinvent herself, admits Olympian Neha Agarwal, who helped the 23-year-old master the art of playing with pimpled rubber at Sandeep’s academy in west Delhi. “What Sathiyan has done so well is carry the momentum forward from CWG and Asian Games. Manika has not been able to do that,” says Neha. “We have seen Manika grow. I have sat with Sandeep sir on multiple sessions on how to build her game. But it is her choice to move on,” says Neha. “To start with, Manika has not played much after the Asian Games. She needs to play more tournaments in the pre-Olympic year.”

Staying focused is important at the top level and Manika, ranked 56, has to quickly get into the groove. The World Championships could be the starting point.

“Manika did something so exceptional at CWG. She has to stay with the same intensity with which she played in the Asian Games and CWG. I just hope she turns the corner at the World Championships. Indian table tennis needs her to do well,” Neha said.

First Published: Apr 22, 2019 13:52 IST