Indian TT teams falter in Tokyo Olympic qualifiers
Indian men’s and women’s table tennis teams lived dangerously and lost in the pre-quarterfinals of the world team Olympic qualifiers in Gondomar, Portugal on Friday. Advancing to the quarter-finals would have ensured both teams direct berths at the Tokyo Olympics. However, they still have a chance to qualify as the eight losing teams will now play another knockout to decide on the one remaining spot each in men and women’s competitions.
The women’s team came within touching distance of scoring an upset over a strong Romania before Manika Batra went down 1-3 (8-11, 4-11, 11-3, 2-11) in the decider against Daniela Dodean Monteiro.
The men’s team started with a victory in doubles against Slovenia but then all three singles players—G Sathiyan, Harmeet Desai and Achanta Sharath Kamal—faltered. In the first match, Sharath Kamal and Desai defeated Bojan Tokic and Deni Kozul 3-0 (11-9, 11-7, 11-5) to give India a decisive 1-0 lead. However Sathiyan, ranked 30, was no match for Darko Jorgic, who is ranked 10 places below the Indian. He lost 9-11, 10-12, 3-11 which allowed Slovenia to come back into the tie.
Desai, ranked 86 in singles, put up a much better display against the 62nd-ranked Tokic, but failed to cross the line, losing 2-3 (11-5, 10-12, 11-6, 5-11, 6-11).
It all came down to the seasoned Sharath Kamal to keep the tie alive and he looked good against Jorgic. But the Slovenian rallied after losing the first game 10-12 to win the next three 11-7, 12-10, 11-8. Jorgic was in control while negotiating Sharath Kamal’s big forehands and forced him to commit errors.
The women’s team showed spunk against the much higher ranked players of Romania and was well on its way to create a big upset.
In the first match Suthitra Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee lost to Monteiro and Samara Elizabeta 2-3 (12-10, 10-12, 11-7, 5-11, 6-11). Manika Batra, India’s top ranked singles player at 61, comfortably went past world No.19 Szocs Bernadette 7-11, 12-10, 11-9, 11-7. Ayhika then lost to Elizabeta 1-3 (10-12, 11-5, 2-11, 7-11). However, Sutirtha gave an inspiring performance against Bernadette, who is ranked 138 places above the Indian. She pulled the Indian team out of trouble—from down 1-2—to force the decider. The 24-year-old Mukherjee showed great skills and mental makeup to win 3-2 (8-11, 11-7, 11-9, 3-11, 11-4). Her backhand was impressive and Szocs could barely stand up to the spin and speed it generated.
The momentum was with India and with Batra to play the decider, it was match on. Batra had won both her singles matches against Sweden on Thursday to see the team into the pre-quarterfinals. In her first singles match on Friday, Batra looked in command against Bernadette. But she could not repeat her performance against a skilful Monteiro, who countered the extra spin she is known to generate with great finesse. Not being able to play her game put Batra under pressure. She was searching for answers as Monteiro, ranked 134, opened up big leads in the first two games and was quickly 2-0 up. Batra found her range in the third and pulled one back, but a calm Monteiro sealed the tie in the decider.
The women’s team will now play France while the men will face Czech Republic on Saturday in the second stage of the tournament. They will have to win three rounds to seal Tokyo berths.