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2018 Commonwealth Games: Manika Batra’s win could prove crucial for Indian TT

Manika Batra has been steadily moving up the ranks of women’s table tennis over the past five years. She helped India win gold in women’s team competition at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG 2018) in Gold Coast

other sports Updated: Apr 11, 2018 08:43 IST
Anindya Dutta
Anindya Dutta
Hindustan Times
2018 Commonwealth Games,Manika Batra,Table tennis
Manika Batra defeated world No. 4 Feng Tianwei en route to helping India defeat Singapore for gold medal at the Commonwealth Games 2018 (CWG 2018) in Gold Coast.(REUTERS)

There are 57 women ranked above her in the world. But for now, India’s Manika Batra is on top of the world. On Monday, the table tennis fraternity was awestruck as the 1.8m tall Manika defeated world No. 4 from Singapore Feng Tianwei in the women’s team event at the Commonwealth Games. Manika also got the better of Zhou Yihan as India won the title.

The Singapore team was shell-shocked. For the first time since 2002, they would return without a gold medal. The best Asian team in the CWG had lost to a side ranked six places below them.

READ | 2018 Commonwealth Games: India beat Singapore in women’s Table Tennis to clinch gold

After losing her singles match to Yu Mengyu, Manika’s teammate Madhurika Patkar bounced back and combined with veteran Mouma Das to beat the strong Singaporean doubles combination of Yu Mengyu and Zhou Yihan 11-7, 11-6, 8-11, 11-7. Manika then came back to sweep away Zhou Yihan 11-7, 11-4, 11-7.

India had won 3-1 beating Singapore.

The Singapore team sat quietly, shock and dejection writ large on their faces. For the first time in sixteen years a team had challenged them and prevailed at the Commonwealth Games. The best Asian team in the Commonwealth had lost comprehensively to a team ranked six places below them in the world rankings, and one woman had made all the difference.

A day later an inspired men’s team went on to emulate the women and put it across Nigeria winning the second team gold.

READ | 2018 Commonwealth Games: Manika Batra’s change of tactics caught Singapore by surprise

A young lady from Delhi shows the way

Manika had been steadily moving up the ranks in the last five years. One can conclude that it was all leading up to this moment when she beat all the top ten women in the world at one time or the other in these five years, when she won gold in the 2nd Division of the World TT Championship in 2016, and the four gold medals at the South Asian Games, but that would be hindsight.

It went back even further, to the time when she as an 11-year-old in Narayana Vihar in south-west Delhi was creating waves.

“Since I was nine, I have been winning all Delhi tournaments. So I thought it was time to move to bigger events,” Batra would say after qualifying for the Rio Olympics 2016, where she and the team disappointingly lost in the first round.

Since then, it has been six hours of rigorous practice every day, and a dream of breaking into the top 10 of women’s table tennis, something that most of her predecessors scarcely dared to contemplate.

But Manika is different and her performance in the team final in Gold Coast showed just that. India came into the final, ranked second in the competition, so it was no big deal. But then Manika had other plans.

Singapore is a powerhouse of women’s table tennis at the Asian level, and by definition the world level. Veteran Feng Tianwei is a triple Olympic medallist, a World Table Tennis Team Championship winner, 2015 Asian Cup winner, and current world No. 4. She is Singapore’s star and talisman. At the end of the match, Feng sat back stunned.

“I played her (Manika) many years ago and she has changed a lot since then, and I don’t train against her playing style... I think she is the only one in the world who uses this style,” said a somber Feng.

Manika concurred: “I was playing more forehand and they didn’t know that I would attack more... I didn’t watch her (Feng’s) videos before the match, but I trained against her style. It is the biggest victory of my career.”

In beating Feng, Manika impressed one and all both physically and mentally. She used a clever strategy, where she confused the Singaporeans with her playing style. She kept her bat close to the table and at an angle for spin, with many of her returns coming flat and fast. Also, she flipped her bat mid-play and the opponents found it hard to catch which side of the bat - which determines the spin of the ball - she was using in her returns. That’s a potent weapon in table tennis.

Once Feng lost, the spirit of the Singapore team was broken. Yu Mengyu beating Madhurika and brought them back into contention, but psychologically they were rattled and it reflected in the relatively tame capitulation in the doubles. By the time a confident Manika came back against Zhou, firing on all cylinders, an Indian victory was all but a mere formality.

What does the future hold for Manika Batra?

Manika’s win against Feng and the team gold medal can be a gamechanger for Indian table tennis. Two years ago, Batra was ranked below 200. At the time of the Rio Olympics she was ranked 115. After the CWG, assuming she achieves some success in the individual events, she will break into the Top 50.

But her success in Brisbane means that from here the slope gets steeper and the expectations kick in. It is not easy to be a champion in a nation that is starved of sporting success. Manika would do well to keep that in mind.

In a few weeks the World Table Tennis Team Championships kicks off in Sweden. India is in Group A of the Championship Division along with China, Singapore and Russia, all ranked higher. The top 3 in the group will qualify for the Round of 16 and with the confidence India will carry after their CWG success, top-16 finish is a possibility. A medal is unlikely. The 2019 edition in Hungary, on the other hand, could well be a different ball game, and a medal a real possibility.

In four months the Asian Games begin at Jakarta. To put things in perspective 23 of the top 25 women players, including Feng will be vying for medals there. As of now, Manika is ranked No. 58. It would be too much to expect her to finish in the top 3 in Jakarta. But wherever she finishes in the mega event, it will be great experience and a step in her quest to move on to bigger things.

By the time Tokyo Olympics 2020 comes around in two years, Manika will be 24-years old. The rate at which she is maturing and improving it will not be a surprise if she closes in on or targets Top 10 ranking by then. At that level a medal is a distinct possibility.

And if she manages to do that and brings home a medal from the Olympics, Indian table tennis will not be the same anymore. Like cricket’s 1983 moment when it all changed, Brisbane 2018 could then become the moment where the dream started for Manika and Indian table tennis.

(Anindya Dutta is a banker, sports columnist and author of the book ‘Spell-binding Spells’)

First Published: Apr 11, 2018 08:40 IST