It’s been a mixed start to the Ultimate Table Tennis for Ayhika Mukherjee. She won her first match for the Puneri Paltan in the league opener but was tamed by Maverick Kolkata’s Manika Batra 0-3 in the second match. On Wednesday, she will play her fifth match in a must-win tie for her team.

The 22-year-old Mukherjee, though, isn’t too bothered by the results. Of course, she wanted to win more matches but performing to the best of her abilities is the priority for now. A month before the league, Mukherjee was not even sure of how many matches she will be playing in the tournament. But given that she was competing in UTT for the first time, she also wanted to be an integral part of her Pune team.

Then came the Commonwealth Championships in Orissa, where Mukherjee became the first female player from India to win the gold medal.

“It was amazing and unexpected. I loved it,” Mukherjee says. “I have played so many matches with Madhurika [Patkar] before the final and it was always 50-50 but there I won 4-0. So it’s great.”

The dominance did not happen overnight. Mukherjee has been working on her defence and speed for the last one year which worked in her favour during the tournament.

“I did not start the year on a great note but I have improved since. In Cuttack, I played a lot of variations and switched the sides more. I play a lot of defence so I increased my speed by switching the racquet. I play anti[-spin rubber] on the backhand and pimples on the forehand. But during Commonwealth Championships I kept changing it,” she says.

The 22-year-old was on a roll in Cuttack, losing only fives games in her four matches. She began with a win over Chang Alice Li Sian of Malaysia, defeated Mausumi Paul of India 4-3 in quarter-finals before dominating Ho Tin-tin of England 4-1 in the semi-finals.

But all that is in the past for Mukherjee. The focus has certainly been on the league that is entering it’s business end with just three more group stage games to go. Puneri Paltan need to win them to make it to the semi-finals.

“Pune is a new team playing their first season. We still have a chance and we will try. We already have a good team and Harmeet [Desai] and [Sabine] Winter have played together. We need to win now,” she says.

For the past two years in the league, Mukherjee has been one of the brightest prospects for India. She won the award of best Indian female player on both occasions.

“The league has always been good for me. I have done well and won the awards as well. I want to continue that performance for the new team. I was Belgian open runner-up and now I have gold from Commonwealth Championships so there is a little pressure as well,” she says.

But she has been handling this pressure since her early days in the game. In 2008, she won her first U-12 title in West Bengal. That was the start which saw her win 20 tournaments in one year.

“That was a turning point. It was a great confidence booster and I thought I can win. I won state championships at seniors the next year,” she recalls.

There was another turning point in her career, but that came at home. Two years after she began competing at tournaments around the country, her father, employed with the Border Security Force, took early retirement to be with his daughter.

“When I used to go out of the state, it was a problem. My mother could not go everywhere. In 2010 my father decided to quit BSF and he was always with me so that turned my life around as well.” she says.

“He always says that you have to keep your feet grounded and shows little praise when I win. When I won in Cuttack, he came up to me and said ‘hawa mein mat udna ab’ [don’t fly in the air now]. He is like that,” she says.

In the league, Mukherjee has struggled to replicate her form from the Commonwealth Championships. In the match against Batra, the only Indian ranked in the top 100 in the world now, Mukherjee had struggled to pick the returns – a skill she always performs confidently.

The struggle, Mukherjee says, is mainly because of her fitness which she needs to improve if she wants to excel more consistently.

“I have to work on my fitness for sure. I feel I am not that fit so I have to be quick. But I want to build strength and quickness at the same time because these are important for my style of play,” she says.

Another problem she finds in India is the lack of players who chop during the match.

“I want to play more choppers. India doesn’t have chopper but outside India there are a lot of them. It’s difficult to tackle them. We don’t practice with any chopper. I defend and play anti-spin but choppers are very different. They go behind the table and chop everything. And you have to be patient.”

If needed, she hopes to train outside the country, following the examples of her seniors like G Sathiyan who is currently the top-ranked Indian player in the world.

“Sathiyan was telling me that if he had not gone around the world playing so many tournaments, he wouldn’t have achieved this much,” she says.

With the popularity of the game rising in India after podium finishes at the Commonwealth and Asian Games last year, Mukherjee, the second-highest ranked Indian female paddler (at 122), says that it is important to prepare with more determination from here on.

“People now know table tennis and they know we can win medals. If I practice harder then I can win as well in 2022.”