In a media interaction in September, Manika Batra hinted at a comeback. It had been a month since the 27-year-old endured a disappointing campaign at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Yet Batra remained upbeat about the future.
“Of course, I was sad and upset,” she would say. “But I always tell myself that this is not the end and I have to keep working hard. That is really important for every athlete, to not think that it’s all over if you lose a match.”
She dropped a subtle message in that statement – that she would get back to the higher echelons of the sport. A level she had reached when she bagged two golds, a silver and a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
On Saturday, Batra fulfilled that promise.
At the Huamark Indoor Stadium in Bangkok, India’s star table tennis player came up with another giant-killing win – in a week where she had already toppled two other higher ranked opponents – to become the first Indian woman to win a medal at the ITTF-ATTU Asian Cup.
In the bronze medal match, the world No 44 from India beat No 6 Hina Hayata of Japan 11-6, 6-11, 11-7, 12-10, 4-11, 11-2 to seal a spot on the podium.
“I am so happy to win the bronze medal in this Asian Cup,” Batra later said in a statement. “This is really a big victory for me, defeating top players and it was so wonderful playing and fighting against them. I will continue this hard work and will give my best for my future tournaments.”
The bronze, in itself, is a great achievement because there is no continent tougher than Asia to shine in table tennis. But that came in the same year as her struggles in Birmingham, was even more impressive.
“It was fantastic to see her back because the Commonwealth Games was so bad for her,” Neha Aggarwal Sharma, the 2008 Beijing Olympian, told Scroll.in. “Manika is right up there with the best, but she needs to keep winning consistently. She played really well to get this bronze medal.”
On paper, Batra never should have gone as far as she did.
In her first match, she played world No 7 from China Xingtong Chen, but came up with a stunning 4-3 (8-11, 11-9, 11-6, 11-6, 9-11, 8-11, 11-9) win. In the quarterfinal, she played Chinese Taipei’s world No 23 Szu-Yu Chen, and won 4-3 (6-11, 11-6, 11-5, 11-7, 8-11, 9-11, 11-9).
Getting to the semifinal made her only the second Indian after Chetan Baboor to reach the top 4 at the continental competition in 33 editions.
She lost out to eventual runner-up world No 5 Mima Ito 4-2 (11-8, 7-11, 11-7, 11-6, 8-11, 11-7) in the semifinal, but had around two hours to dust off that disappointment and prepare herself for the bronze medal match against Hayata.
And Batra, who uses a defensive long pimple rubber on one side of her racquet, came out all guns blazing.
“At that level, for a player with long pimples it’s hard to get your opponent to make a mistake. You generally have to earn the points by finishing the rally. But here there were so many instances where Hiyata was making the mistakes - crazy surprises which nobody would imagine,” Aggarwal said.
“At that stage, making players of that high level make errors is a solid thing with the long pimples.”
But it wasn’t just Batra relying on Hayata to make mistakes. The Indian was playing aggressively from both sides of the racquet, and off both wings.
“She was using the pimples aggressively. Her forehand in general was much more consistent. It’s usually weaker than her backhand, but you couldn’t see it here,” Aggarwal added.
“Manika was taking the ball early on the forehand. Against top 10 players, you’re matching the speed of the best players and contacting the ball early, leaving the opponent no time. That just shows you how fit she has become. And then she’d change the pace from the backhand to throw Hina off.
“But it was important for Manika play the game she wanted. One of the tactics against a long-pimple player is to keep playing to their backhand, which Hiyata did in the fifth game. But Manika didn’t allow that to happen in the sixth game - Manika got her own game back. She increased the pace. That was a very smart thing to do.”
A crucial juncture in the contest was in the fourth game. Batra was leading 2-1, but Hayata had raced to a 10-6 lead and was ready to level the match. That’s where the Indian played a steadier brand of table tennis, keeping the ball in play, then surprising the opponent with heavier ground strokes and drawing out the errors.
From 6-10 down, Batra won the next six points to win the game and go 3-1 up.
In the sixth game, Batra simply started to strike the ball harder and more consistently from her forehand side, twiddling her racquet between shots to change rubbers.
Up till this point, it had been a difficult season for the Indian. But she turned it around at the end of what has been a historic week for Indian table tennis.
For Aggarwal, this should be a launchpad to send Batra towards greater achievements.
“Asia is the most dominant continent in the sport. If you’re winning the bronze at the Asian Cup, you’re right up there in the world. This is huge for table tennis,” she said.
“At the CWG there’s so much pressure to win, but here she was an underdog and Manika has always done better as an underdog. But now is the time for her to be getting these results. The next 1-2 years she needs to shoot out. As an elite athlete, you need to learn how to not be an underdog. And now that she’s won this medal, at all levels, people will be strategizing and planning to beat you.”
If it already wasn’t clear already, the win on Saturday certainly marked Batra as a serious contender on the biggest stages.
As Aggarwal put it, “She’s not an underdog anymore.”