The barrier-breaker

Personality

It is not hard to find Manika Batra’s place in New Delhi. Almost one kilometre before the swanky neighbourhood of Naraina Vihar, there are boards featuring her pictures on every street light. The boards then give way to big banners and tri-colour balloons, leading to her three-storied house. Manika is everywhere, and so are the words: “Welcome Home Golden Girl”.

The 22-year-old table tennis player’s popularity has been on a rapid rise, much like the Delhi summer temperature. With four medals -- historic gold in women’s singles and women’s team, silver in doubles and bronze in doubles at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Manika has returned as the darling of Indian sports -- evincing admiration and curiosity.

Be it her tri-colour painted nails or use of long pimple rubber on her table tennis racquet, everything about has been talking points. “When I landed and came outside the airport, I didn’t expect so many people, media waiting for me. It was a great experience,” grinned Manika. A huge cabinet stacked with her trophies glittered at the backdrop.

The 22-year-old, perhaps, is still to grasp the import of her achievement but she does take pride in exceeding her own expectations. Her defeat of world No 4 Tianwei Feng of Singapore twice -- in the team final and the women’s semifinal -- threw Indian table tennis in throes of disbelief and excitement. In fact, such was the impact of her victories that it drew extensive coverage in Singapore newspapers.

Manika’s elder brother Sahil, who works at Regional Health and Benefit Consultancy in Singapore, recalled being referred as star players’ brother. “It was a big news in Singapore,” Sahil said. After all, Singapore team has been undefeated in the Commonwealth Games since 2002!

Manika had to rally both the times to beat Feng but never lost hope. “It was important to have the self-belief and it was there in me in this tournament. When I played singles, Feng was a totally different player. She was playing more on my front. I was down but I came back. I just said one thing to myself that I can do it. I can beat her again and win medals,” said Manika.

“The team was positive but we didn’t think we would beat Singapore. We made strong strategies and I especially motivated every member that nothing is impossible.”

An introvert, Manika, who also qualified for the Rio Olympics, prefers to express herself through her game. “I don’t speak much but when I play I let it out. I love challenges, they bring out the best in me. Playing in Ultimate Table Tennis League too helped me improve. But this CWG I played at a different level.”

Manika was barely four when she followed her elder siblings, Anchal and Sahil, to Stag Table Tennis Academy in West Delhi. Coach Sandeep Gupta is a known name in Delhi table tennis circuit. His protégé Neha Agarwal had qualified for the 2008 Olympics. It was the same year when young Manika had won the junior US Open, and convinced Gupta she had a long way to go.

The tandem of Gupta and Neha explored the possibility of long pimpled rubber, which provides variation in strokes compared to the normal rubber that is typically on the other side of the bat. A user of long pimples can turn or ‘twiddle’ the racquet in his hand and confuse his opponent.

It though was never a popular technique and drew severe criticism. But Gupta and Neha were convinced. The two went on a four-day trip to Switzerland in 2007-2008, fully funded by Neha’s businessman father, to meet Dr Herbert Neubauer, renowned for using long pimples, and winner of multiple singles and doubles titles in World Veteran Championships.

“People used to think that with pimpled rubber you cannot win an international competition,” Gupta recalled.

Manika, who was 12 at that time, benefitted the most from that. “Her maturity and grasping levels are very high. Because she was shy, her focus was amazing. She is an advanced version of Neha, and she grew up sparring with her. Neha was at her peak that time and constantly encouraged her. Besides her height being an advantage, her counterattack and blocks are extraordinary. Before going for CWG, she promised me she will return with a medal,” Gupta said.

“I developed pimpled rubber weapon by using the plain rubber for counter-attack which is unique in the world. You have to anticipate within 0.2 seconds where the ball would come, and you have to switch over and change the grip, take the forehand into backhand and then counterattack. It is a big thing she understood.”

Manika admitted the style helped her enormously. “Many people said I cannot win internationally with this rubber because it is not that much effective but I proved them wrong. I practice a lot with my coach Sandeep sir. I keep on varying with that pimpled rubber and he taught me that I can play with pimpled and side by side I can switch and play with the normal rubber. When I am at home I keep on doing that, practice switching.”

Manika’s comebacks at the Commonwealth Games thrilled everyone, but Neha was not surprised. She recalled the 2011 All India Inter-Institutional Championships at Burnpur, West Bengal, where a young Manika fought back from 0-2 down to shock multiple-time national champion Poulomi Ghatak 4-3 (7-11, 8-11, 11-5, 11-9, 11-7, 8-11, 13-11) in the final.

“She had done the same in the semifinals, and I had told her then that she is the comeback queen!,” exulted Neha, who now works with Olympic Gold quest. She, though, remains in constant touch with Gupta. “I have no shame in saying that rest of the women never believed, never saw that dream, never contemplated that this can happen.”

Neha believes Manika’s accomplishment holds the potential to bring a shift in women’s table tennis. “Girls from Maharashtra and Delhi have brought the medal, not Bengal or Tamil Nadu which have dominated the sport for years. I really believe what Sharath Kamal had done for men’s table tennis, Manika has done for the women’s game.”

Manika, however, knows that this is just the start. For someone her age, she is not active on social media and opened a twitter account only after her CWG win. And she prefers to keep it this way. “I don’t want distractions. We now have world team events coming up where we are drawn with China and Singapore. Then we have the Asian Games, where all the players will be tough. I will have to restart. I have to work hard and add new weapons,” she said.

“Earlier I was fully dependent on my backhand, now I am improving my forehand because they will catch me on that. I am also working on my fitness.”

For now, Manika is enjoying her share of fame. “I am shy, I don’t show it but I am liking this (attention). After CWG, everyone will now know me. When I will go out they will say ’oh Manika Batra is here’. I would enjoy that.”

 

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