Unfazed by newly acquired stardom, India's table tennis queen Manika Batra aims to overcome Chinese domination
"Finally, it is sinking in," paddler Manika Batra informs, with a slight hint of contentment in her voice. A little trace of humility as well, as she adds, "But now I have to start working harder to continue at this level."
It has been almost two months since Batra returned from Gold Coast with four medals — the most by any Indian at this year's Commonwealth Games — and that too, from a sport that hardly anyone follows (correction, used to follow) in the country. In other words, the Delhi-born girl was the star of the show Down Under.
Unsurprisingly, when she landed at the Delhi airport, there were an innumerable number of faces — some known, most unknown — to greet her and the rest of the team.
Of course, things have changed and she admits it too. "Life has changed a lot," Batra says. People are recognising me whenever I go out. It's a new and yet, an amazing feeling."
"Before no one followed table tennis. After Commonwealth Games, everyone is taking interest in the sport," she adds, acknowledging the rise in popularity of the sport.
Indeed, the perception of table tennis among Indians have changed drastically since the Commonwealth Games. No one had expected the paddlers to bring home as many as eight medals, let alone three gold medals. In fact, few had expected that the girls' team will win any medals whatsoever.
However, inspired by Batra, the team exceeded all expectations and went on to beat Singapore in the final to win a historic gold medal. But it did not stop there. In a few days time, the 22-year-old youngster went on to bag a second gold medal when she beat Yu Mengyu of Singapore in women's singles final.
Mouma Das, the most experienced campaigner in the team, had revealed that strong team spirit was the reason behind the unprecedented success. Batra, too, conceded that without the support of every member in the team, it would not have been possible.
"Team spirit was an important factor for us at CWG. When someone is playing out there, if the people sitting behind on the benches to cheer and support them, it gives great mental strength which is crucial," she says. "This was there in all of us. Everyone saw the team medal and the Indian flag in front of them and they automatically supported each other. Not only on the table but off it too. That's what made it possible."
Right after the Commonwealth Games, a stiffer test awaited the Indian paddlers — the World Team Table Tennis Championships. The women's team were playing in the Championship Division for only the second time. Moreover, they were grouped alongside 21-time world champions China, hosts Sweden and the eighth seeds Singapore.
After the performance in Gold Coast, the girls were ready to take on the big occasion and announce their arrival to the world. However, it turned out to be a disappointing outing. While defeats to China and Russia were not surprising, it was the ones against the lower-ranked Sweden and Singapore, that hurt.
Batra, herself, found the going tough in Halmstad. She lost to opponents ranked much below her, with her only win in the group stage coming against Russia’s Yana Noskova. Eventually, the Indians finished 17th, as Batra went on to win both her matches against Luxembourg in the 13-24 classification round.
There are always lessons to be learnt in defeats and Batra reveals that while the competition may have been tougher than the Commonwealth Games, the team itself was not 'fully prepared'.
"Compared to CWG, World Championships is a very tough tournament. So many teams participate. But the experience was good. Our team gave it's best. But I think we were not fully prepared for that. We should have done more practice. We didn't get time to practice for the World Championships. So we gave our best in what we did," she says.
"We should prepare for back-to-back tournaments. I think we should do more hard work for these big tournaments. Next time we'll do better."
'I'm ready to work hard to beat the Chinese'
The result at the World Championships, however, did little harm. The run in Gold Coast had made her an overnight star, a household name but Batra remains unfazed by it.
Many athletes who suddenly become superstars find it difficult to keep their feet on the ground. They are swayed away by the fan admiration, the media attention amongst other things. But not Batra. She is different and her words serve as a testament to that.
"This is just the beginning for me," she says. "There are a lot of big events coming up, like the Olympics and World Championships. We'll keep training hard so that we can perform well in the Asian Games."
"I'll have to work harder so that I can defeat the Chinese. I am ready for that," she adds. "I will take some other initiatives now. I will use other techniques so that my opponent stays confused. I am ready for that. I will make a new strategy."
To be the best, you have to beat the best and Batra knows this and the best are from China. For years, the Chinese have dominated the sport. At this moment, four in the top 5 female paddlers in the world are from the land of the Red Dragon.
The immediate next challenge for Batra, though, is not in national colours. In a couple of days time, the second season of the Ultimate Table Tennis kicks off in which the quadruple medallist in Gold Coast will turn out for Dabang Smashers, the Delhi-based franchise.
With Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Adriana Diaz, Sakura Mori and others for company, Batra feels the team is a strong one. "I am happy with my team. We have some of the bests in the business along with some young talents," she says. "We'll give our best so that we can reach till the semifinals at least."
She also talks about the changes that have been made for the new season before signing off. "The number of matches have been reduced. It's a good move because the players won't tire out. The audience will also not get bored this way. As for the golden point rule, I think it will make things more interesting and also, there will be pressure to take that last point."