Ho Ying’s teammates jumped over the fence and rushed to her, as she lay on the surface holding up clenched fists in celebration. The 27-year-old Malaysian had just won the deciding match in the Commonwealth Games women’s team event, knocking out defending champions and second seeds India. Moments later, Ying sat on the sidelines, wiping the tears as she tried to make sense of what had just happened.
Over in India, around 8000 km away, Neha Aggarwal Sharma, a former Olympian, was also trying to figure out what just transpired.
“It’s very disappointing. It just doesn’t make sense,” she told Scroll.in. “Ranking, calibre, technically, physically… everything. We’re so much better than them. But the tables have turned. We’re not underdogs anymore. Now that you have to defend your title, it takes a different mindset altogether, even if it’s against a low-ranked opponent. We just have to accept that we couldn’t deliver, there’s nothing more to it. You can’t say it wasn’t our day, or there was no luck... we just couldn’t deliver, simple as that.”
On Saturday, at the National Exhibition Centre, the venue for the table tennis event at Birmingham 2022, India were overwhelming favourites as they entered the quarterfinal against a lower-ranked Malaysian team. To put the difference in class into perspective, consider that one of the Malaysian’s who played the tie was an unranked 19-year-old, Karen Lyne.
Yet it was Lyne who made a great impact in the tie. First she paired up with World No 331 Alice Chang in doubles and beat World No 76 and 111 Sreeja Akula and Reeth Tennison respectively 3-1. And later in the fourth rubber, when India were up 2-1 and needed one more win to secure a place in the semifinals, she beat India’s star and World No 41 Manika Batra 11-6, 11-3, 11-9.
It paved the way for the World No 556 Ying to beat the inexperienced (on the big stage) 27-year-old Tennison and book a last-four spot. Ying came from behind twice in the match to clinch it 10-12, 11-8, 6-11, 11-9, 11-9.
“Everyone in the team was under pressure. Manika was under tremendous pressure. Her calibre is much higher than what she played. I was impressed by Sreeja, she was good in the doubles, she was good in singles. Reeth, this is her first major multi-sporting event. The experience of handling pressure situations and playing for India, she doesn’t have that experience,” said Aggarwal.
“She’s much better than Ying. I’ve seen Ying since I’ve been playing. Reeth tried her best, but when you don’t have that experience, you will just not be able to deliver in those pressure situations.”
The Indian team had come up with an upset win over Singapore to claim gold in the women’s team event at Gold Coast 2018. That team was an experienced squad with Batra coming up with the crucial wins.
Only Batra remains from that side at Birmingham 2022, yet the 27-year-old had never played a multi-sport event as the most experienced player in the team.
“Until now you had a Mouma Das, a Madhurika Patkar - they’re all experienced and know what goes in a team environment. This time it was a new team that was given the responsibility to defend the gold medal. It was a lot to ask for, but I still strongly feel that at least getting to the final was not a difficult route. It was a good draw,” Aggarwal added.
Ideally, it shouldn’t really have come down to the last match between Tennison and Ying.
After the opening doubles loss, Batra came up with a 3-2 win over Ying to level the tie. Akula then did well to make it 2-1 to the Indians after beating Chang in straight games.
The fourth match though was arguably, the upset of the tournament so far, as the unranked Lyne beat Batra in straight games. It was a match in which Batra’s famed and precise use of a long-pimpled rubber found no purchase against the aggressive left-hander.
The novelty of using the rubber as a weapon though, Aggarwal said, has worn off.
“It’s not a surprise anymore. Lyne knew how to play against the rubber. Manika is there at the top, and we can’t fool ourselves now because everyone is training how to play against that rubber, everyone is training to beat you. But you have to keep improving and setting your standards higher and higher. You can get to the top but it’s harder to stay there because others are studying you and trying to get better. Now the theory of others not knowing how to play the rubber doesn’t exist,” she said.
“That fourth match was crucial. When they lost the doubles, I wasn’t too bothered because it was almost a given that Manika will win both. It was all on Sreeja, if she takes it, we will win. But Manika was under a lot of pressure, and Reeth just couldn’t convert.”
In the fifth, it all came down to experience. Tennison was the higher ranked player, but veteran Ying knew how to handle the pressure – she was a part of the Malaysian team that won silver at Glasgow 2014, and along with Lyne, was in the squad four years ago in Australia.
This was a tough loss to swallow, but Aggarwal hopes that Batra can find it in her to use it to push herself further as the Games progress.
“I hope it does impact Manika in a positive way so that she can use this experience to help her in the other events. She has doubles, singles and mixed, and she has the potential to get medals there.”