TT: 'Old' Batra is enjoying the game
At 27, she certainly isn’t old. But she is no younger than from four years ago when Manika, with her twinkled eyes and pimpled backhand rubber on her racquet, caught the imagination of the Indian sporting fan.
“Am I old now?”
Manika Batra smiles and takes playful offence to the mention of the term “older” slipped in a reporter’s question. At 27, she certainly isn’t old. But she is no younger than from four years ago when Manika, with her twinkled eyes and pimpled backhand rubber on her racquet, caught the imagination of the Indian sporting fan and unfurled table tennis’ wings to an unexplored peak in the country.
That was in Gold Coast at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG), an event that not only gave the 23-year-old paddler a singles gold, doubles silver and team gold but speedy stardom.
The Delhi paddler returned to the same stage on Friday—Manika won both her singles matches and the team 3-0 against South Africa and Fiji in the women’s preliminary round—insisting she is the same Manika Batra from four years ago.
“I'm the same person I was. I feel the same way. When I'm on the table, I have to be that Manika Batra, who is giving her 100 per cent for the country and is the same kid inside who is enjoying the game,” Manika said.
Her game—that pimped rubber, especially—was a novelty for a lot of players back then, including the Singaporeans whom she beat en route to her title run in singles and in the final for the team triumph. She has since been a regular on the elite professional tour, rising to 41st in the world rankings in singles and in the top 10 of both the doubles charts. Manika realises that most of her rivals can read and understand her play a lot better now, and anticipates a stiffer challenger to defend all those medals in Birmingham.
“Of course, they have prepared for my game, and are ready for it now. I’ve prepared for their game too. The person who I am playing knows my game now. I can’t go in with the thinking that ‘usko nahi aayega (she won’t be able to read it)’ and that I can win easily. But I was prepared for that (2018) CWG and I’ve trained hard with my new coach (Chris Adrian Pfeiffer) for this CWG too,” she said.
In these four years, Manika has also created quite a ruffle in the Indian table tennis fraternity. She refused the presence of India's Tokyo Olympics national coach during her matches there before accusing him of forcing her to throw away a match in the qualifying tournament. Her subsequent petitions in court resulted in the national federation being taken over by a court-appointed Committee of Administrators that continues to run the body.
Court cases and selection issues continue to swirl around her and the sport in the country. Manika admits distractions can be a factor, but she can bring herself back to staying in the moment on the table. “Distracting thoughts do come into your mind sometimes. It cannot happen that something else is not running in your mind,” she said. “On the table I am alone. No one is there, but I support myself because I have to play my game.”
From the young sensation, Manika is now the leader of the pack at the 2022 CWG alongside the three other women debutants in the team. Like she did back in Gold Coast, Manika’s message to them is to relish the occasion and the spotlight. “Enjoy the game when you're there on the table. Don't think about anything else outside.”