Sutirtha and Ayhika Mukherjee lose in semis but their miracle bronze can spark golden era in Indian table tennis
Ayhika Mukherjee and Sutirtha Mukherjee got bronze in table tennis women's doubles after losing the semi-final against North Korea at Asian Games in Hangzhou.
Sutirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee's historic run at the Asian Games in Hangzhou ended with a bronze medal. The Mukherjees, who became India's first women's doubles pair to assure a table tennis medal at the Asian Games by beating world champions, Chen Meng and Yidi Wang of China on Saturday, came tantalisingly close to adding another glorious chapter on Monday. They fell just short of taking India to their first-ever final in any discipline of table tennis at the Asian Games after losing to Suyong Cha and Sugyong Pak from North Korea in the semi-final match that was nothing short of an entertaining thriller. North Korea won the pulsating final spread across 7 games 4-3 to advance to the gold medal match. The Mukherjees got India's third table tennis medal at the Games after the men's team and the mixed team of Manika Batra-Sharath Kamal won bronze medals in Jakarta in 2018.
Sutirtha and Ayhika, who are childhood friends, started off the semi-final on an aggressive note, taking a 4-0 lead in the opening game and although the North Koreans won two points the Indian ladies thwarted all the hopes of their comeback by running away with a 7-2 lead. Pak and Cha, however, were not going to go down easily. They took four consecutive points to reduce the deficit to only two points. Under pressure, Ayhika and Sutirtha went on the offence and got three important points to reach the game point. Pak and Cha saved one of the four game points but the Mukherjees converted the next to take the first game 11-7 and with that a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven affair.
The North Koreans, quite expectedly, made a strong comeback in the second game, taking an early 3-1 lead. It was pretty much the replay of the first round but in favour of Pak and Cha. They took advantage of the Mukherjees' wait-and-watch policy, getting the better of the rallies. This forced the Indian pair to change their strategy and come out attacking. This had worked in the first game but it didn't in the second. Korea levelled things up after winning the second game 11-8.
In the third game, the Indian pair was back in front with an early 3-1 lead. The Koreans fought back to make it 6-6 but Sutirtha and Ayhika got four back-to-back points to get a clear 4-point lead which proved to be enough for them to take a 2-1 lead in the match. They won the third game 11-7.
The twists and turns in the match were just starting. It was now the Koreans' turn to hit back. They took the first three points of the fifth game. India, however, got back in the game quickly to make it 5-5. The neck-and-neck game was at 8-all when India called for a timeout. The break did not work in India's favour as Cha and Pak won three of the next four points to win the game and take a 3-2 lead.
Ayhika and Sutirtha were not done. The girls from Naihati, about 70kms from Kolkata in West Bengal, came out firing in the sixth game. They first took a 3-1 lead, then stretched it to 6-1 and continued to dominate in what turned out to be the most one-sided game of the closely-fought contest till then to once again bring the semi-final on level terms.
In the decider, it was the North Korean pair who drew first blood and ran away with a big enough lead, giving the Mukherjees no chance of a comeback. They won 11-2 to finish the match.
Why this is a golden moment for Indian table tennis
“Asian Games TT medal is equivalent to an Olympic medal, especially in women. What they have achieved today will go down in the books," said former India table tennis player Somoyadeep Roy, who coaches Ayhika and Sutirtha at his academy in Kolkata.
India have been there and there about in table tennis, reaching the quarterfinals and round of 16 stages regularly but beating a Chinese opponent has always been a bridge too far for them. And not only for India, China have had such a stronghold in table tennis, that it is always considered an upset whenever they lose.
The Chinese pair that Sutirtha and Ayhika beat had 12 world championship medals.
To give more context to how monumental Ayhika and Sutirtha's achievement was, it is important to mention that the pair were not considered good enough to represent India in last year's Commonwealth Games. From there to come and beat the very best in one of the biggest stages of world sport was a landmark moment in Indian table tennis and could spark a golden era in the sport.