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Manika Batra wants to wear the mantle of role model in Indian sport

Manika Batra might be grappling with her new-found stardom, after her inspirational show at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but she is not complaining

other sports Updated: Apr 22, 2018 14:12 IST
Avishek Roy
Avishek Roy
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
2018 Commonwealth Games,Manika Batra,Gold Coast 2018
India's Manika Batra notably won the women’s singles table tennis gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast earlier this month.(AFP)

You have to strain your ears to hear Manika Batra. Shy and unassuming, Manika searches for words, and expresses herself ever so slowly. Quite a contrast to the fearless, fist-pumping player who mesmerised Indian fans at Gold Coast. She might be grappling with her new-found stardom, after her inspirational show at the Commonwealth Games, but she is not complaining. Manika always yearned to become a sporting star in India.

“I am shy but I also enjoy (the attention). Obviously after the Commonwealth Games everyone would know me. When I go out, they will say ‘oh, Manika Batra is here.’ I enjoy that,” says the 22-year-old table tennis player from Delhi, who won two gold, one silver and bronze in Australia.

“It has been amazing so far. When I came out of the airport, I didn’t expect so many people; so many media persons were waiting for me. Mom told me something will happen but never expected it to be so big. Table tennis is not that popular, but after CWG I want to make sure the sport becomes popular.”

READ | More to Commonwealth Games 2018 star Manika Batra than table tennis

The adulation has been overwhelming for Manika and her family. The streets leading to her two-storey house in West Delhi’s Naraina Vihar locality is decorated with huge posters and banners welcoming Manika. “The neighbours did all this on their own. They also went to the airport to receive her,” says brother Sahil Batra.

Sahil was witness to Manika’s popularity even in Singapore after shocking their top player, world No 4 and thrice Olympic medallist Feng Tianwei. Not once, but twice. That a girl from India, ranked 58 in the world, would break their stranglehold in table tennis was an event that captured the imagination of the city state.

Sahil, who works in Singapore in a health and benefits consultancy firm, says his sister’s success has made him a celebrity of sorts. “Singapore newspapers went gaga over Manika for three days. She is now a recognisable face there. My colleagues call me a celebrity’s brother,” he laughs.

Early years

Sahil can claim a big hand in Manika’s tryst with ping pong. The youngest of the three siblings, Manika followed her brother and elder sister Anchal, who has played at the national level, to nearby Stag Hansraj Model School academy in Punjabi Bagh.

While Sahil and Anchal pulled out of table tennis, Manika had found her career choice. “I like everything about table tennis, the table, racquet, intensity. After winning the youth championship, I started giving serious thought about taking it up as a career.

“I love challenges and once I am on the table, I express myself.”

Her coach Sandeep Gupta saw the spark and thrust her into real competition from the beginning. Sandeep had another famous pupil in Neha Agarwal, who qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

READ | India can do well in table tennis World Championship: CWG winner G Sathiyan

Unusual technique

Though Manika is six years younger, Neha sparred with her. Both practiced with the pimpled rubber (used for defence) and the art of twiddling the bat to counter-attack with the plain side to confuse the opponent. It turned out to be a masterstroke in deceiving the Singapore players at Gold Coast.

“I keep on varying with that pimpled rubber. Sandeep sir taught me that I can play with the pimpled side and also switch and play with normal rubber and opponents get confused. I have been practicing this since my cadet days. Not many international players follow this technique.”

The strategy worked against Feng in the team battle but when they faced off again in individual competition, the Singapore player was prepared.

“She was able to figure out. She was playing more on my forehand and I was missing points. But I don’t know what happened in the last game, even my forehand started going and she was not able to play.”

READ | 2018 Commonwealth Games star Manika Batra recommended for Arjuna Award

Her distinct style of play is one reason that despite being approached by European clubs, Manika decided to train in India. “I didn’t want them to get used to my unique style. Maybe I might consider offers now.”

But her fearless attitude rubbed off on the team members, who returned with their biggest haul, seven medals, from the Commonwealth Games.

“The team was very positive but we didn’t think we would beat Singapore. I motivated every member saying that nothing is impossible and we can beat them.”

“When I played Feng for the first time, there was no pressure, and I was like I want to give my all. I speak to Sandeep sir before every match but the self-belief has to come from within.”

She was always talked of as a star in the making in table tennis fraternity and qualifying for the Rio Olympics was a step in that direction. The exposure she got in Ultimate Table Tennis (league), competing against quality foreign players at home, also helped. “To play with overseas players and to train with them was a good experience. It raised my confidence level.”

READ | Manika Batra the star as India dominate table tennis at 2018 Commonwealth Games

Challenges ahead

Manika knows bigger battles await her this year. She will be leaving on Monday for the World Table Tennis Championships in Halmstad, Sweden where India will play in the Championship Division for the first time.

“I have to restart. I don’t want to think I have beaten the world No 4. To play against the Chinese, they are different. They are really quick on the table. In fact, every player has a different style. I have to improve my fitness and game.

“Earlier, I was fully dependent on my backhand but now I will have to improve my forehand because they will catch me on that. I am moving faster than before and I am more confident on my forehand.”

It is very difficult to break into the top tier in a highly competitive sport like table tennis but Manika oozes confidence. “I don’t think there is any difference in the level of play. I have just beaten the world No 4. But you have to be mentally stronger to beat them.”