The first thing you notice about Manika Batra is the racquet-shaped pendent she wears. The silver charm is the first hint of many of the 22-year-old’s passion for table tennis.

She wants table tennis to grow and become popular in India. And with her potential and performances at the international level already, she also knows that she is in the unique position to make that happen. In an interaction with The Field, she makes it clear she wants to be the one who can take it to that height

“People should know me through table tennis. Already, Sharath Bhaiyya ke saath mera bhi naam aa raha hain [my name is being taken along with Sharath Kamal Achanta – India’s most successful paddler]”

At 22, she is already among India’s most successful table tennis players. She is the highest ranked Indian female player, currently ranked 104 in the world. She has represented India at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Rio 2016 Olympics.

She won three medals at the 2015 Commonwealth table tennis championships as well as three gold medals at the 2016 South Asian Games. Back in 2011, she claimed the silver medal in the under-21 category of the Chile Open. In June this year, she and partner Mouma Das created history by becoming the first all-Indian pair to enter the quarter-finals of the World Table Tennis Championships.

However, she is also aware that the only way to for table tennis to be grow in in India is by winning, a lot more. “If we start winning in Olympics and Commonwealth Games, I think table tennis can become like, say badminton,” she said. “Look at how much PV Sindhu [Olympics silver medal] changed the sport.”

Batra recollects a meeting with cricket great Sachin Tendulkar and how it changed her perspective as a sportsperson. “Once I met Sachin Sir and asked him how he performs knowing the country’s expectations are on him. How does he deal with the pressure, what goes through his head? He said that you should be happy with those expectations, because the country is supporting you, and not take it as pressure,” said Batra.

Early success

Her early success is not surprising, after all Batra took up the sport when she was just four. In her own words, she fell in love with table tennis when she saw her older siblings play at school and slowly became the best player in Delhi and then at state level tournaments. She changed schools to get the right coaching, was allowed to skip homework and exams by her teachers at Hansraj Model School in order to practice, and even gave up college after a year – all for the sport. And it has all been worth it, she says. She won silver in her first national competition at about 15 years of age, and hasn’t looked back since.

However, while talking to her, it’s hard to imagine that this cheerful girl gushing about Alia Bhatt and The Big Bang Theory, who dances to unwind and likes doing photo-shoots, is the fierce competitor in the arena. Anyone who has seen her play will vouch for her attacking game, sharp mind as well as competitive instinct.

Before the Ultimate Table Tennis League began, she said she wanted to play against Hong Kong’s Doo Hoi Kem because she had lost to the higher ranked player in the past and wanted to get one back. As it turned out, both Doo and Batra ended up in the same team at Olimax Stag Yoddhas.

UTT is another entrant in the mushrooming of sports leagues in India, and as has been the case with several such tournaments, it has brought previously unwatched sports to prime time television. Already, Batra is seeing the difference UTT is making, not least being her own growing popularity.

“Usually no one watched table tennis, it was only shown DD sports. But everyone is watching us now, it’s a big thing for the sport to be on TV. During the matches in Delhi, a lot of people had come there to see us and many of them told me they were my fans. I don’t even know how they knew about me, this is a new thing,” she told The Field.  

Batra is delighted with this newfound attention, in real life and on social media. “That day I went for dinner, and someone I didn’t even know walked up to me asked me if I am Manika Batra. It felt very good to be recognized. Before this league, I had some 200 followers on Instagram, now it’s 1700,” she said with a smile.

#Rio#Olympics2016#bestmomentever❤️ 🏓

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For the love of her mother

But there is one thing that motivates Batra more than the love for the game and the country. “I am playing for my mother first, then everything else. If I win, it’s like she has won and I want to keep winning to make her happy.”

Her mother has always been with her, right from the time she took up the sport. She recollected anecdotes when her mother, her biggest support system, made sure she was equipped for her career. “When I went for my first camp, my mom dropped me and then she started crying. Before I travelled for tournaments, mama ne pehle hi bol ke bheje tha [she had prepared me to take care of myself alone when travelling abroad,]” she recounted. Even now, although they get very little time with her, she spends most of her free time at home shopping with her mother or eating her my favourite home-cooked paneer.

At an age where most people are trying to establish themselves in a career, Manika Batra is already the top-ranked Indian female player and is becoming the face of the lesser-fancied sport in India. Batra has had quite the journey. The uplifting part is that this is just the beginning for the 22-year-old. Keep an eye on her, Batra’s best is yet to come.