Forlorn expressions remained fixed on the faces of the Indian women’s table tennis team. They clapped feebly, more out of sporting compulsion, to congratulate the victors and comfort Ayhika Mukherjee, who lost her deciding singles rubber against France, as she walked back to her dugout.
These scenes told the story of errors made across a table, a result that extends the wait for a first ever spot at the Olympics for the women’s team by another four years. And when the dust settles after the 3-2 loss to the lower ranked French, what will be left behind are painful thoughts of what could have been.
This was the second stage of a tournament that was designed to distribute nine 2020 Olympic Games quotas to worthy teams. In the first leg, eight teams earned their spot at Tokyo. Against all odds, the Indians were in close contention.
A day back, they played a higher-ranked Romanian team, cancelled out the threat of world no 19 Bernadette Szocs, but could not avoid defeat in the best-of-five rubber format, as they eventually stumbled 3-2. No matter, there was still a chance to get the last quota. For that, they’d have to win an eight-team tournament.
On Saturday, the 17th seeded Indians came up against 18th seeds France in the quarterfinal tie. On paper, the rankings would have suggested a straight-forward win for the Indians – India’s lineup was led by world no 61 Manika Batra, Ayhika (121) and Sutirtha Mukherjee (157), while the French team included Stephanie Loeuillette (99), Jia Nan Yuan (161) and Marie Migot (195).
But after a five-set win in the doubles, Batra, who led the team to gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, was upset by Migot 3-2 (7-11, 11-3, 9-11, 11-3, 7-11) in the second rubber. The French then went on to take a 2-1 lead in the third, when Yuan beat Sutirtha in straight games (11-7, 11-8, 11-6). Batra however did come back strong in the fourth match. Playing Loeuillette, the 24-year-old pulled off a strong 3-0 win (11-7, 12-10, 11-4), taking the tie to the fifth rubber.
The decider is where talent and stroke-play isn’t the only thing that counts, nerves play a big role.
“That was the problem. In those situations you have to hold on to your nerves,” says former Olympian Neha Aggarwal, after 22-year-old Ayhika lost her five-game match 3-2 (11-6, 8-11, 11-5, 9-11, 9-11). “She was trailing 9-10 in the final game. It gets very tense in those situations. But the inexperience also made a difference. Overall the Indian girls don’t get many opportunities to go out and train, so these situations all come new to them.”
The loss to France now means the Indian women’s team’s hopes of making it to the Olympics this year is over. But even in defeat, Aggarwal draws a few positives.
“Yes, what happened here was unfortunate and France was beatable. But the girls did put up a brave performance throughout,” she says.
“Importantly, women’s table tennis in the country has been all about Manika. But now the other girls have shown that it’s not just about her. Sutirtha, Ayhika and Archana (Kamath) have stepped up quite well. The Olympics have gone now, but before you know it the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games will be around. So it’s good to see that these new names are coming up.”
The individual quota places are still up for grabs, and those slots will be decided in the coming few months. But at the Olympic team qualifiers event in Portugal, the men’s team still remains active, and with them, there is still hope of an Indian team making it to the Olympics for the first time.
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