The thuds and skids off shoes were resonating in the hall. A ball was hitting a paddle almost every nanosecond. Around 25 players, some with national and international fame, were perfecting their skills. The gateway to the venue was also being decorated with a few billboards: “Delhi State Ranking Table Tennis Tournament”, read one of those. Just then, a giant hoarding was moved into the compound outside. It said: “Welcome Manika Batra, Our Golden Girl”.

The table tennis academy in Delhi’s Hansraj Model School continues to produce champion paddlers for India. Of them, Batra – the double CWG gold medallist and the first to win an individual gold for the country – is the latest star.

Under the tutelage of its distinguished coach Sandeep Gupta, the academy has given India players such as Neha Aggarwal, Anthony Amalraj and Batra, whose journey from a five-year-old to a CWG champion is the stuff dreams are made of.

The academy has given India players such as Neha Agarwal, Anthony Amalraj and Batra.

Batra had just returned from the World Team Table Tennis Championship in Sweden, where India failed to win a single match in the group stage of the championships division, ultimately finishing 17th. With disappointment writ large on her face, she didn’t waste any time coming to academy for a discussion with Gupta, her personal coach. Tucked in the corner of the hall, Batra and her coach had an intense 40-minute discussion, before both made themselves available for a chat.

“We discussed the mistakes I made at the World Championship,” Batra said, as she sat down to narrate her journey. “I now have to write those down and then we will work on it.”

Had it not been for the influence of Sandeep, Batra’s parents may have never got her admitted to the Hansraj Model School. The script then would have been entirely different, but destiny ruled, like it always does.

The introverted beginner

Talking to Batra gives one the impression that she likes to keep to herself, limit discussions to the point and express only as much required. She admits that as well. But for the fierce competition out there in the sports world, these were not the ideal characteristics.

However, Gupta, who has also been nominated for the Dronacharya Award this year, made an interesting observation.

“She was shy, an introvert, almost a scared five-year-old kid. But it actually worked to her advantage initially,” he said. “Being so, she quietly used to follow instructions as is and do the drills exactly the way she was told to. It helped her achieve perfection quicker compared to other kids.”

Batra was quick to add to that. “But I always used to win in tiny tots, cadets and sub-junior categories at the state ranking tournaments,” she said with a smile.

Manika Batra was a shy and introverted kid.

“However, it’s true that I was scared to even ask for an advice from Sandeep Sir. But as our bonding grew while travelling to tournaments, spending more time in training, I started sharing a lot because I realised that if I don’t, it could stall my improvement.”

Manika owes her success to the unflinching support she got from her mother, Sushma Batra, who allowed her to put table tennis ahead of academics.

“ It was becoming difficult to manage, I was missing classes. At that time, my school and academy came forward to help me with extra classes and flexible training hours, but still something kept telling me that I need to take a call.

“So I sat down with my mother telling her that my mind is always on table tennis and I can’t concentrate on studies as much as I should. It’s a very tough decision for any child to put studies behind for sports, but my mother supported me entirely. She talked to Sandeep Sir, who didn’t want my potential to go waste. So my parents stayed happy even if I scored average grades.”

In 2009, the 14-year-old Manika announced herself on the international scene with a silver medal at a tournament in USA. That was the point when Gupta’s hunch turned into conviction.

Sandeep Gupta realised Manika Batra had it in her to go the distance when she was 14.

“I realised my gut-feeling was right, she’s going to go places,” the coach said, as he came back after correcting the service stance of one of the youngsters practicing.

“Staying introverted was not an option Manika had anymore. I widened the spectrum of her training to aspects like expressing yourself, how to put the opponents under pressure with your body language, aggressive play, etc.

“She never used to express with a shout or a yell at crucial points. I used to tell her to buck herself up with words like ‘fight’ and ‘come on’ and ‘look into the eyes of the opponent’. I told her, ‘If you don’t do that, I will make you do frog-jumps’. It worked.”

The modelling bait

With popularity and good looks, the six-feet tall Batra got recognition beyond the table tennis arena. She was approached with a few modelling assignments. It was almost like bait, threatening to distract Batra from her career in TT.

At that moment, Gupta stepped into the shoes of a counsellor to guide his prodigy.

“She wasn’t attracted towards modelling but as she gained popularity, a couple of assignments came her way,” Gupta said.

“My advice to her was that these two are different lives altogether and can’t go simultaneously. I made her understand why she was approached: it’s because of her success in table tennis, people started knowing her because of TT. If the graph of her game went down, such offers will also disappear.

“So the obvious thing is to focus on your game and raise it to such a level that the world not just recognises you but also remembers you,” the coach added.

Manika Batra was approached for modelling assignments (Image: ITTF)

Gupta has travelled to many international tournaments as Batra’s personal coach, including the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“Here, the Table Tennis Federation of India’s role is huge as they allow me to interact with Manika when she is in national camps and even sent me to Rio Olympics as her personal coach. She is a Target Olympic Podium Scheme athlete, so I went with her to Japan and Europe as well in 2016.

“Based on those trips and the experience I also gained as a coach, I restructured her training for the next two years leading up to the CWG, including a scientific approach and bringing practice partners from overseas to here at the academy,” he added.

But even when he’s not travelling with Batra to tournaments, Whatsapp ensures instructions are relayed during matches.

Gupta was glued to the television set at home when Batra was playing at Gold Coast, and he was also typing frantically on WhatsApp. Anthony Amalraj, who was part of the men’s team that won gold in CWG in Australia and trains at the Hansraj Academy, was the recipient of those messages. He shouted those instructions out to Batra.

“During the [women’s singles] semis and final, at some points I was confused what to do. [Gupta] was watching on TV, so he messaged some tips to Amal bhaiya who shouted those to me,” said Batra.

“I knew this was coming from Sandeep Sir. Before the match, he had told me what to do but sometimes in match pressure your thoughts get blocked. Those shout-outs from Amal bhaiya reminded me and I made the necessary changes.”

The most successful Indian athlete at the 2018 Commonwealth Games,said he owes her to success to “mere sir ki daant (scolding from my sir)” and “coming to academy daily.”

“The academy is my second home,” said the soon-to-be Arjuna Awardee.

As chat ended, the champion walked past a huge billboard with her image, high-five-ing the youngsters on the way.