Manika Batra’s not much of a talker during training. She actually doesn’t talk much at all to people she isn’t too familiar with. She does know 2008 Olympian Neha Aggarwal well though, for the pair has been training together since Batra first took up the sport. Ahead of Batra’s departure to Indonesia for the Asian Games, the 23-year-old had something to say to her senior: “I’m ready to surprise.”
In all the years that India’s most decorated player, Achanta Sharath Kamal, has played the game, he’s not been blessed with a mixed doubles partner who could strike the ball with enough venom to complement his power-playing style.
Until he took to the table with Batra at Jakarta. In his young partner, Kamal had a dependable deputy. And together they forged a team strong enough to upset the South Koreans in the round of 16 of the mixed doubles event, beat the North Koreans in the quarters, before finally folding to the Chinese pair of Chuqin Wang and Yingsha Sun. That run earned them an unprecedented bronze medal — a day after the men’s team won India’s first ever table tennis medal (bronze) at the Asian Games. “Nobody ever thought we can win a single medal at the Asian Games. It’s very tough. But now we have two in two days,” Aggarwal said.
Kamal’s morale had indeed been boosted with the bronze medal in the men’s team event, which the Indians won after beating heavyweights Japan, What was crucial for him in the mixed doubles event though was the attitude of his partner. “That has been the main difference,” Aggarwal explains. “The Indian women’s players have not really had the belief at big games like this. But Manika has that positive mentality. She wanted to create a stir and she’s combined with Sharath to do just that.”
Technically too, the combination was destined for big things. In Kamal, India had a veteran and master tactician with the ability to induce viscous spin and power on the ball. But with Batra, there was the art of deception. “Manika uses a long-pimpled rubber on the backhand side which slows the ball down and adds spin. That’s a very rare style,” Aggarwal says. “What makes her a tricky opponent is that she twiddles the racquet and can use the long-pimple to play forehand shots too.”
Slowing down the game when the opponent least expects it forces the opposition forward and return without much power. This allows Kamal to pounce and finish off points. “Essentially, you have one player who can hit it hard, and another you don’t know what to expect from,” Aggarwal adds.
Deception though, isn’t Batra’s only weapon. Over the past three years, she has worked hard on converting her once ineffective forehand into a commanding shot. For Kamal, that is the one facet he’s been missing in a mixed doubles partner.
“When Sharath hits his forehand, he opens up the opponent. But you need to have a partner who can hit the next shot with just as much power to finish off the rally. He’s never had that kind of partner for a while. But Manika’s new forehand compliments his. She can match his intensity.” In the pre-quarters, the Indian pair pulled off the upset of the tournament after beating the South Korean team, that included world No.7 men’s player Sangsu Lee and women’s No. 21 Jihee Jeon, 3-2. They rode their luck to beat the North Koreans by the same scoreline in the next match.
In the semi-finals against favourites China, the pair was aggressive and managed to capture the third game, before eventually folding 4-1. By now though, the second bronze medal had increased the shockwaves the Indian table tennis contingent had created within the highly competitive Asian Games field. Now they will hope to ride that wave to more medals as the men’s and women’s doubles, and singles events kick-off.