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Friday, September 24, 2021

Tokyo 2020: Manika Batra finds her game in time to pull off an upset

The 26-year-old’s playing style involves no small degree of deception. She uses a long-pimpled rubber to slow down the pace in rallies, find an opening, switch racquet faces, and increase the tempo with a single shot to throw off the opponent. In the first two games it was the second part of her game that she didn’t follow.

Written by Shahid Judge |
Updated: July 25, 2021 3:22:02 pm
manika BatraThe world number 62 from India made a remarkable comeback against her Ukrainian opponent after losing the first two games.

Just 11 minutes into her second round match, Manika Batra wore a worried expression. Rarely does she betray any emotion, but the cameras managed to catch her frown, as she silently sipped water, trying to figure out how to overcome the 2-0 deficit at the hands of World No 32 Margaryta Pesotska 2-0. The answer wasn’t what she was doing wrong. Rather it was what she wasn’t doing.

The 26-year-old’s playing style involves no small degree of deception. She uses a long-pimpled rubber to slow down the pace in rallies, find an opening, switch racquet faces, and increase the tempo with a single shot to throw off the opponent. In the first two games it was the second part of her game that she didn’t follow.

“She was playing too passive,” explains 2008 Olympian Neha Aggarwal.

“She wasn’t attacking at all, and it allowed Pesotska to get into a rhythm and finish off points quickly. That’s what Manika needed to change, and she started doing that from the third game.”

In a match that lasted 57 minutes at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, the World No 62 ended up overcoming the deficit to pull off an upset 4-3 (4-11, 4-11, 11-7, 12-10, 8-11, 11-5, 11-7) win.

Manik Batra Tokyo: Ukrain’s Margaryta Pesotska competes during the table tennis men’s singles second round match against India’s Manika Batra at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP/PTI)

Indeed Batra understood the changes she needed to bring into the match from the third game. She started off rallies slowly, soaking in Pesotska’s shots and sending them back with plentiful spin but not much speed – placement was key. Just when it seemed the Ukrainian was about to find a footing in the rally, Batra would start whipping in faster backhands and forehands.

The rally lengths started to increase from the third game, as the Delhi-girl dictated play with the constant change in tempo. The longest rally in the first two games was 16 and 18 (an average of seven and nine shots per rally respectively). Once Batra started to claw her way back into the match from the third game, the length increased. The longest rallies in each of the last five games were measured at 21, 43 (Batra brought the score back to 2-2 at this stage), 33, 26 (Batra levelled the score again to 3-3) and 31 respectively.

Manika Batra Manika Batra of India in action against Margaryta Pesotska of Ukraine. ( REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez)

The long-pimple rubber works by sending the ball back across the table with an opposite spin to what the opponent had played, regardless of if the user strikes the ball with a topspin or backspin motion. At the highest level though, opponents are aware of the nature of the rubber. That’s when twiddling the racquet mid-rally makes a difference.

Batra has sharpened her backhand to the point where she can play defence and attacking shots while switching the rubber. And she’s learnt how to finish off points with a big forehand.

More often than not though, at least against Pesotska, the trickery and constantly fluctuating tempo drew errors. That’s what happened when the Ukrainian hit a forehand long on match point to send Batra into the third round.

She next plays World No 17 from Sofia Polcanova.

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