Manika Batra was easily the most recognisable among the players marching, in single-file, to the playing area of the Pandit Dindayal Upadhyay Indoor Stadium in Surat. As the tallest among the lot and a home-team favourite at the 20th Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship, eyes remained firmly on the 5-foot-11 athlete as she warmed up ahead of her opening match in the team event. And it was quite a lengthy procedure. The 20-year-old had started stretching her limbs over an hour before the match against Cyprus, yet she still preferred a quick spot-jog ahead of the toss.
It’s a process she had adopted just after returning from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last year. Yet it is the workout itself that she credits to her becoming India’s number one women’s player.
Interestingly enough, she realised her need to improve her fitness, not because she wanted to compete well at the senior level, but because her additional responsibilities at the junior level, where she is ranked 62, called for greater exertion. “At my age I have to play juniors, seniors and zonals. Sometimes I play a match just a few minutes after finishing another one. It’s tiring and I realised I needed to do something to boost my stamina,” explains the world number 166.
Since returning from Glasgow, her daily schedule has included a two-hour fitness session that involves a mixture of cardiovascular and weight training. “With my height, the first step was to strengthen the back. That’s all in order now,” she says.
But it wasn’t just the physical side that resulted in her rise. Eight-time national champion and former national coach Kamlesh Mehta has long been fond of her calm mentality, and of late, the aggressive touch she’s brought to her game. “It’s a good temperament, but she’s also worked a lot on playing attacking shots. She’s always looking for the moment to start attacking,” he asserts.
The aggressive play, in turn, was brought into effect by Batra’s improvement in her forehand technique. There’s a deceptive touch she has developed in the way she controls the bounce and pace of the shot. “It’s like a quick snap. The opponent thinks the ball will come to the base of the court and with speed. But instead it’s a drop shot and there isn’t much bounce to recover,” he mentions.
With the attacking intent however, Batra makes it clear that she recognises the need to switch the pace of the rally. “Sometimes when I’m rushing and losing points, I need to be able to go for longer rallies,” she claims.
Now that she has dominated the Indian ranks, her focus has shifted to qualifying for the Olympics next year. Since she is currently 166th in world rankings, she doesn’t come into the automatic qualification category reserved for the top 22 players. Instead, she will have to win the qualifying events that are scheduled for April next year.
Incidentally, just four years ago, Batra had turned down a scholarship to train at the Peter Karlsson Academy in Sweden — a six-month course designed to prepare the then 16-year-old for the Rio Olympics. Missing out on school-work and travelling alone to the Scandinavian country didn’t appeal to her parents. Nonetheless, Batra asserts there are no regrets over the decision. “It’s not that I stopped playing. I’ve worked equally hard here and have had good results,” she says.
Mehta too has been impressed with her work, calling her the ‘most consistent performer’ currently playing for India.
At the ongoing championship in Surat, her ranking has her seeded third in the singles event, behind second placed Ye Lin and top seed Yihan Zhou — both from Singapore. As for the men’s singles category, Hu Li from Singapore tops the seedings, followed by Indian pair Soumyajit Ghosh and Harmeet Desai. Singapore has the top seed in the team event while India is second.
Batra will feature in the Indian team that will play England in the semi-final on Friday. Beyond this tournament Mehta has predicted a positive run for the tall youngster should she continue working the way she has. Having been introduced to the game at the age of four, and at 20 being the best player in the country, armed with fresh confidence and a stronger game plan, there is a new spring to her step.