Making ‘unbelievable things believable’, the Ayhika way - Hindustan Times
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Making ‘unbelievable things believable’, the Ayhika way

ByRutvick Mehta
Feb 26, 2024 08:57 PM IST

The India No. 7 in singles was an inspired pick for the world team event and she repaid the faith, beating the world no.1 from China

Ayhika Mukherjee had a rather audacious request to her teammates and coach a night before the Indian women’s team was to begin its 2024 World Team Table Tennis Championships campaign against top seeds China.

India's Ayhika Mukherjee in action during her women's singles group stage match against China's Sun Yingsha (REUTERS)
India's Ayhika Mukherjee in action during her women's singles group stage match against China's Sun Yingsha (REUTERS)

"I said to them that I want to play Sun Yingsha. Please put me with her if possible and plan the strategy in a way that I can play with her," Ayhika says.

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Sun Yingsha is the world’s top-ranked women’s singles player, the best among the Chinese and someone who had never been beaten in this tournament. Most players would be quietly glad to avoid crossing her path. Ayhika instead asked for exactly that.

“Because she is the best in the world — what else could be more exciting and challenging,” she says, smiling.

The eagerness to fight in the mind translated into execution to win on the table. The Indian, ranked 155 in singles, produced one of the most remarkable results of the prestigious team event in stunning the world No. 1 in the opening rubber 3-1.

That, along with Sreeja Akula getting past No. 2 Wang Yidi in a 3-2 defeat to the eventual champions, set the tone for the Indian women’s outing in the team Worlds. It ended with a Round of 16 finish and them being on the doorsteps of the Paris Olympics berth through the rankings quota.

“That was the biggest victory and the biggest moment in my career,” Ayhika, the Asian Games doubles bronze medallist, says. “On match day, when I saw that I was up against her, I was really happy. And I took that feeling to the table — I was fearless and really enjoying every point. Being fearless was the main factor (in the win), I guess.”

She went into the tournament with a similarly fearless mindset. The India No. 7 in singles was an inspired pick for the team event comprising five singles matches, for there were players ranked higher than her within and outside the squad in Busan.

Ayhika repaid the faith, winning four of her six contests while only losing to world No. 4 Chinese Wang Manyu and No. 66 Li Yu-Jhun of Chinese Taipei in the Round of 16. Fielded for the third rubber for the remaining ties, Ayhika turned the tide her team’s way in a couple of close 3-2 wins — against higher-ranked Hungary from 1-1 and Spain from two-nil down — to ensure India finished second in the group behind China.

“People say the third match is always crucial, and that is true,” Ayhika says with a chuckle. “I wanted to do my best for the team. My mindset going into the event was that I will not think about winning or losing. I will take risks when needed and play accordingly, so that I won’t regret later that I had to play this way or that.”

It reflected in her battle with Sun. Not only did Ayhika effectively deploy her anti-spin backhand rubber to fox the Chinese, she also complemented it by throwing in some lethal attacking forehands that Sun found too hot to handle.

“I made use of my anti-rubber and attack combination very well," she says. “I have been training to improve my attack and that has really helped me at this high level. Especially in beating the world No. 1.”

The Indian has taken down Chinese opponents twice in less than six months, also defeating the then No. 2 doubles combine of Cheng Meng and Wang en route to bagging a historic bronze for Indian TT alongside Sutirtha Mukherjee at the Hangzhou Asian Games. In Ayhika's mind the Chinese, still largely untouched as a TT powerhouse, are no longer the invincibles they were in the women’s game.

“The Chinese unbeatable aura is definitely not the same as before. We believe we can beat them if we play our best game,” Ayhika says. “For me personally, I feel great when I face higher-ranked opponents. I enjoy playing against better players. I always believed that I could create something special against them, and make unbelievable things believable."

Like winning the Asian Games doubles bronze getting past the Chinese second seeds. Like handing the Chinese No. 1 singles player her first defeat at the team Worlds.

The past few months have been productive for Ayhika. The next few months will be important. The official confirmation next month will lock India's team spot at the Paris Games, for which Ayhika stands a good chance of making the squad. Going by rankings, the singles spot (every qualified team obtains two quota places for single events) might be tricky, but that's for later. For now, Ayhika wants to give equal attention to singles and doubles (Sutirtha and her are ranked 17th), keeping a potential Paris trip in mind.

“My goal is to play the Olympics,” she says. “Also, to regain my ranking in singles by playing WTT tournaments. I want to be better, train smarter and do all that I need to do to get even better than before.”

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