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Manika Batra: TT's poster Girl

In a conversation with Aditya K Halder, table tennis sensation Manika Batra discusses her success at the Commonwealth Games, emphasising upon the many challenges that have contributed to her promising success across international platforms.

As the tricolour swayed in pride with the national anthem ringing in the background – at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games 2018 –an emotionally-drenched Manika Batra was seen taking deep anxious breaths. Battling to restrain her tears, the shy girl from New Delhi was still attempting to come to terms with her brand new accomplishment. The fact that she has just won the first-ever individual gold medal in table tennis for India at CWG, a discipline in which the nation has been considered the perennial underdog, was no mean feat.


Manika vividly recalls the many thoughts buzzing through her mind as she stood elevated at the CWG podium. "The moment I saw the flag being hoisted, I was trying hard not to cry. My coach (Sandip Gupta) and I underwent several hardships. I remember how often I was criticised for my rubber preference. Winning the gold despite those criticisms overwhelmed my emotions on that day," said the 22-year-old paddler.

The "rubber preference" Manika mentioned is in the context of her paddle which is known as the pimple rubber or pips. "I have always played using an odd rubber or pimple rubber on my backhand, and flat rubber on my forehand. I received immense criticism because of the pimple rubber. Many had said that it wouldn't take me far in the international circuit. But, my coach always instated my confidence. He assured me that this rubber will work on the international circuit too and I trusted him," she said.
At the CWG individual event final, Manika choked out Mengyu Yu in straight sets, 11-7, 11-6, 11-2, 11-7 with utmost ease. It was the semi-final match that made her sweat as she was up against world no 4 Feng Tianwei. whom she rallied to defeat after falling a set down. Singapore's ace paddler is renowned for her tactics of reading her opponents in the opening sets and attacking their weaknesses in the closing sets. However, Feng was given a taste of her own medicine when Manika took the game with powerful smashes against the topspin of the former world champion.
The Indian ace paddler narrated how a call from her personal coach Sandip helped her find the winning strategy. "Whenever I am in a do-or-die situation in a game, I always turn around and look at my coach for advice. I didn't have that luxury at the CWG (since personal coaches are not allowed in the games village). But Sandip Sir gave a call to (Anthony) Amalraj (her compatriot in the mixed team event) and through him told me what to do in the remaining sets to pull the game off – and it worked," she said.
However, coach Sandip refused to take credit for the win as he believed that holding her nerve against a higher-ranked opponent was the key to victory. "She is giving me too much credit. I have always been there for her, but she is the one with an immensely gifted talent," said the coach who trained Manika since she was four-years-old. "I can chalk out many strategies for her. But, when you are up against a top quality player such as Feng, holding on to your nerves becomes the key. If one can't do that, no strategy would work. But, Manika excelled brilliantly under pressure. I can only consider myself lucky to have someone like her under my tutelage." Beating Feng wasn't a fluke as the flamboyant paddler defeated her higher-ranked contender twice in a matter of days at the games. The win also gifted India a gold for the first time in the mixed team event. Spearheading the team to defeat Singapore in the final was Manika's favourite moment from the games as it helped her overcome a critical mental barrier.
"Watching the Indian flag hoisted higher than Singapore's flag was the most pleasing moment from CWG. In the previous CWGs, we have always lost to them. We always struggled as they had top-quality players in their team. Even this year, they denied us a gold medal in the women's doubles event (where she partnered Mouma Das against Feng and Mengyu in the final for a 5-11, 4-11, 5-11 loss). Overcoming that obstacle was a testimony to the fact that Indian TT has improved," she said.
With the Asian Games less than four months away (to be held from August 18 in Jakarta, Indonesia), Indian paddlers will face their nemesis in China, who are considered to be head and shoulders above the rest of the world. Even teams such as Japan and South Korea, who possess multiple top 10 players, would be a tough nut to crack. Oozing with confidence after her CWG exploit, Manika believes that the team needs to stop worrying about China and, instead, play to their strengths. "When it comes to China, it's all in our head that the Chinese are too good for us. We lose the game before it starts because of this psychological barrier. I have been always planning based on my game and what I can do. I worry less about who is standing on the other side. I think that would be the best foot forward against the Chinese and the Koreans," said the world no 58. Indian veteran table tennis star Sharath Kamal, who shouldered the burden of Indian table tennis for over a decade, recently said that he is ready to pass on the baton of burden to Manika. The starlet graciously accepted the responsibility bestowed upon her.
"I am happy that Sharath believed that I am ready to uphold such responsibility. He has been the face of Indian table tennis for as long as I can remember. He has won many medals for the country and I hope to continue from where he left off," she said. Manika is trained by Indian head coach Massimo Costantini on the international tour. However, the 22-year-old paddler said for personal coaching, she is not in favour of foreign coaches.
"I don't really want a foreign coach because of my unique playing style. I have been learning from Sandip Sir since I was four and he understands me and my game very well. Going to a new coach would mean that we will have to adapt to each other from scratch and that would be a waste of time," she concluded.
The young paddler also attached an additional vote of thanks to Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT), India's first-ever professional table tennis league. "The league has helped us India players immensely. We got an opportunity to play and train with the higher-ranked players which helped us learn a thing or two about our own games. Personally speaking, I had played and beaten higher ranked players last year, which obviously instilled significant confidence. I am happy that it is happening again and I really looking forward to it."
For the young Manika Batra, the journey has just begun and many green pastures lay ahead for her to conquer.

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