From facing age fraud suspension to booking Olympic berth, Sutirtha Mukherjee comes a long way
- Mukherjee, 25, beat India’s current No. 1 woman player Manika Batra in their lone Asian qualifying match in Doha to seal her spot for the Tokyo Olympics as the winner of the South Asian region.
In the qualification events leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Tokyo-bound paddler Sutirtha Mukherjee could not even stand the sight of table tennis, let alone play it. “I stopped watching the sport completely. I would be extremely hurt seeing the others play while I couldn’t,” she recalled.
In 2015, Bengal’s Mukherjee was among players suspended for a year by the Table Tennis Federation of India for allegedly fudging age records in their junior days. The Naihati-born Mukherjee was India’s top woman paddler then, and the punishment meant she couldn’t have a crack at qualifying for the Rio Games.
“That was the most challenging period for me,” Mukherjee said. “For any athlete, sitting out for one year is a massive blow. And I was the No. 1 female player in India at that time. Suddenly, I had to deal with a suspension. I was hurt, mentally very low. For two months, I didn’t want to play at all. Whenever I tried to play, memories would come rushing back. Every single moment of my career would flash in front of my eyes.”
Mukherjee needed all the morale-boosting words from her parents and coaches to move on, starting to make peace with her one year on the sidelines by treating it as an injury phase. “Everyone told me, ‘tera time aayega, tu wapas aa payegi (your time will come, you will make a comeback)’. Slowly I started practicing again to return stronger. And because I had a chance to qualify for Rio but could not, the Olympics became my main target,” she said.
That target has been achieved. Mukherjee, 25, beat India’s current No. 1 woman player Manika Batra in their lone Asian qualifying match in Doha to seal her spot for the Tokyo Olympics as the winner of the South Asian region. “Playing the Olympics is my dream, and I have waited a long time for it,” Mukherjee said. “It’s the last step for any athlete.”
Mukherjee’s initial steps into the sport were taken in Naihati, a small town in Bengal, where she played table tennis at a club near her house. Her mother, Nita, was adamant that her daughter picked up the game, and her childhood coach Mihir Ghosh ensured she did a good job of it.
In almost all age-group tournaments that Mukherjee participated in, her mother would be by her side. “It’s very challenging as a girl coming from a small town going to different cities,” Mukherjee said. “But my mother was behind me at every step.”
Mukherjee knew she needed to move out of Naihati to grow as a professional paddler. Four years ago, she shifted to Jadavpur to train under former Indian player and current national coach Soumyadeep Roy and Poulomi Ghatak at their academy. There too the doting mother refused to leave Mukherjee’s hand, and the mother-daughter duo has since been living together in a rented house opposite the academy.
“She has stayed with me throughout, taking care of everything. My mother didn’t bother once that she has to leave our entire family behind in Naihati and stay with me in Jadavpur. It takes a lot of sacrifice. But she did it for me, and maybe that’s why I am where I am today,” Mukherjee said.
Mukherjee has won two national singles titles in 2017 and 2019 and was part of India’s gold-winning women’s team at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. In April 2020, she broke into the top-100 of the world rankings for the first time, a year after she was ranked 502. She credits her rise to Roy who made her believe that she could compete - and win - on the international stage. “Soumyadeep da taught me how to play at that level and gave me little targets - breaking into top 500, 300, 200, 100 and now 50,” the current world No. 95 said. “Before him, I had no international goals.”
She had no international training, too. Mukherjee has never stepped out of the country to train due to lack of sponsorship; she is also not part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) that supports India’s Olympic hopefuls. Her foreign exposure outside of competitions has been restricted to the Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT), India’s table tennis league that hosts some of the world’s top paddlers. In the previous UTT season in 2019, Mukherjee beat Germany's world No. 20 Petrissa Solja while playing for U Mumba. Then at the World Team Qualification Tournament in Portugal last January, she stunned the then 19th-ranked Romanian Bernadette Szocs.
“UTT has given players like me a platform to play with and against top players. You can be with them in a team environment and observe how they train. I got more confident that I could compete against some top international players,” she said.
Mukherjee hopes to compete at her maiden Games in Tokyo, for which she wants to get fitter, leaner and look for a training stint in Europe. “I want to create a three-month roadmap for Tokyo along with Soumyadeep da. I have to improve on my fitness. I am also thinking of training in Europe if I manage to find a sponsor,” she said.