Manika Batra likes Alia Bhatt. She likes watching The Big Bang Theory. She likes dancing. She likes photoshoots. There are many likes for Batra, but love, for her, is table tennis. That’s why her pendant’s table-tennis racquet-shaped. That’s why she’s one of India’s best table tennis players. That’s why she, at 22, is world No 58. That’s why Manika Batra won medals in all the events she participated at Gold Coast.
She pulled off a huge upset against world No 4 Tianwei Feng (winning the tie 11-8, 8-11, 11-7, 11-9, 11-7) routed Yihan Zhou in four games to help India beat Singapore and clinch the gold medal in the women’s team event.
The Feng win was no fluke. For, she repeated the feat en route to winning the women’s singles gold medal. Batra beat her 12-10, 5-11, 11-8, 5-11, 5-11, 11-9, 13-11 to reach the final.
Her combination with Mouma Das fetched India the silver medal in the women’s doubles event.
And, to cap it off, a bronze medal in the mixed doubles event with G Sathiyan.
Batra’s steady rise in the sport at just 22 can be attributed to her early start. She took up the sport at four after watching her two elder siblings play the game. She soon became the best player in the city. Then in her state. Then, at 15, she won the silver medal in her first national level competition. She changed schools, skipped classes and even gave up college after a year to pursue table tennis.
Batra was part of the Indian squad in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she reached quarterfinals. A year later, she helped India bag a team silver and women’s doubles silver in the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship.
The 22-year-old won the South Asia Group qualification tournament to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she attracted a lot of attention for painting her nails in the tri-colour.
But Batra has also been forcing people to take notice of her table tennis and is already the top-ranked Indian female player with a potential of becoming an icon of the sport that’s still growing in India.
“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],” she had told The Field last July.
After her stupendous effort at Gold Coast, people will remember the name. Manika Batra. The name that’s expected to bring more laurels for India in the rapidly played sport of table tennis.
The tactical switch
One of the primary reasons of Batra’s success against Feng, as observed by ESPNIndia, was her flicker-fast switch of the paddle from its long pimpled rubber side (that aids in defence) to the inverted pimpled side (conventionally used for forehand, attacking strokes) to play an attacking backhand shot that flummoxed her left her higher-ranked, more experienced opponent.
“There was a lot of research that went into flipping the paddle around. I couldn’t ever master it. But Manika learned this from the time she started playing. So it has become very natural for her,” said Neha Aggarwal, former Olympian in the sport.
“Manika has been playing this way from the time she started her career. But she has had to work a lot to make this work. Manika didn’t have a very good forehand or serve and she has had to work on that. This style is an art but Manika is very smart in using it,”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published after Manika Batra helped the women’s team to a gold, it has been updated now at the end of India’s campaign, adding the part about the tactical switch.