During the previous Olympic cycle, Indian paddler Sutirtha Mukherjee was serving a ban for alleged age fraud and was unable to even try and make it to the Rio Games. The despair she felt then almost prompted her to give up the sport.

This Olympic cycle, the 25-year-old from West Bengal sealed her Tokyo Games quota with a group-topping win at the Asian Olympic Qualification. She fought back to beat India No 1 Manika Batra in a telling performance.

The story of the two Olympics reads like a redemption arc from fiction. The journey from not even watching the sport in 2015 to becoming India’s second-highest ranked female player has been understandably arduous, but it has resulted in her childhood dream coming true – representing India at the Olympics.

“It’s a whole new feeling… I can’t describe it. My dream came true and now I just want to have a memorable performance in Tokyo, do something no other Indian woman has,” Mukherjee told Scroll.in.

There is a quiet confidence about the declaration, not just out of candour, but built on the belief that she has finally found her place.

An incidental passion

Table tennis was not a natural choice, but more of an incidental occurrence. Hailing from Naihati, a small town in West Bengal, there were limited options to pursue indoor sports.

“My mother really wanted me to play an indoor game. There was a local club where table tennis was the most prolific sport and so we picked that over badminton and volleyball. Slowly I started playing local tournaments and then winning them. So I got more interested in the sport. In 2006, I played my first nationals and that’s when table tennis became a full passion,” Mukherjee recounted.

“After that I won the junior nationals and then participated in the Youth Olympics. Now I am a two-time national champion and have a gold medal at Commonwealth Games. My life became settled due to table tennis, people know me for the sport now,” she added.

Apart from her mother, Mukherjee’s biggest support has been her coaches – former national coach Soumyadeep Roy and national champion Poulomi Ghatak. Both Bengal players are Indian table tennis veterans and have their own academy in Jadavpur where Mukherjee trains and stays. These are the three people she credits in almost every response as being solely responsible for her rise.

“There was a time I had no vision for my career, I used to play at international tournaments and return. My coaches then started giving me small targets such as breaking into the top 300 and then 200 of the world rankings. Now I am in the top 100 and top 50 is next… this has boosted me mentally,’ she said.

Bouncing back from the ban

This new attitude is clearly reflected in her rankings as she climbed from world No 502 to 95 in the span of a year. This after she almost gave up playing after her ban in 2015. But the motivation from her support system pushed her and she bounced back and became India No 1.

“The ban was the most challenging part of my career, I was so devastated I would not even play or watch matches. My family would tell me ‘think that you are injured and that’s why away from the game’. My coach said that you have to play to get back and prove yourself, there is no point feeling sad.

“After that, I restarted practice and training. I had to be very mentally strong when the people around me were supporting me this much. I told myself that crying or staying at home was pointless and built my confidence. I worked very hard and that’s why I was able to come back the way I did,” Mukherjee explained.

Her two national singles titles came in 2017 and 2019 and in 2018 she was part of India’s CWG gold-winning women’s team. She then gained crucial experience at the Ultimate Table Tennis, and in 2019 had famous upset wins over the much higher-ranked Petrissa Solja of Germany and Taipei’s Cheng I-Ching. In 2020, she stunned world No 19 Bernadette Szocs at the ITTF World Team Qualification tournament before the pandemic struck.

Sutirtha Mukherjee playing for U-Mumbai in UTT

This wins have helped build her confidence and she is ensuring the hard-earned mental focus continues with constant meditation and has had sessions with a psychologist. During the shutdown last year, she attended online fitness sessions arranged by her academy and did shadow practice when she was at home.

In the lead up to the Olympics, her coaches are there with her daily as she undergoes hard training and has a new fitness trainer. They plan her schedule so there is ‘no headache’ for her and have helped her plan strategy for her opponents.

“I plan my game a lot for my opponents and change my game accordingly. My coaches help me plan and they have changed my game a lot so I am able to do things I couldn’t earlier. My forehand is pimpled and backhand is plain so I do a lot of variations, I change the rubber at crucial times,’ she says of her game style. The 25-year-old looks up to the game style of China’s Liu Shiwen and even tries to imitate her sometimes, resulting in a more attacking game.

The focus now is completely on Tokyo. “Everyone has ups and downs in life and I had to work a lot harder coming from a small town. But when I am at the Olympics, I’ll forget all the trouble and only remember that the struggle has brought me here and be proud of it,” she said in a refreshingly candid moment.

Armed with that positive attitude, unwavering support from the coaches and a constantly-improving game, Mukherjee is a player to watch out for the upcoming Olympics and beyond.