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In big tournaments, I try and bring out a better version of myself: Manika

The last time Manika Batra entered an Asian Games, she was riding an unparalleled high of her own breakthrough coupled with Indian table tennis’ moment of basking in the glory at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG). Both were backed up at the Jakarta Asian Games months later, with Manika and Sharath Kamal adding a mixed doubles bronze to the men’s team giving the country a first Asian Games medal in table tennis.

Manika Batra plays during her match at the Ultimate Table Tennis 2023(PTI)

Five years on, things are a lot different now. Indian table tennis has been through choppy waters, at times dipping low and at times finding new shores. So has Manika, now a more established name on the international circuit as the 36th-ranked player and a more experienced paddler.

And so even as happy memories of the 2018 Asian Games remain, the Hangzhou edition starting next week is a clean slate for India’s top paddler.

“Sure, that (2018 Asian Games) was a special moment. But I have a different (mixed) doubles partner now (G Sathiyan), and I also want to focus on singles and team events. I need to look at this as a new tournament, where I’m more prepared and improved,” Manika said in an interview. “I want to play my best here and try to win against quality players. And, of course, if I play well, I can win a medal too. But even if I lose, I will be happy if I play at my best level.”

Manika has a knack of elevating her level while taking down big opponents come the bigger tournaments. At the 2022 Asian Cup last November, for instance, she defeated China’s then world No. 7 Chen Xingtong, world No. 6 Japanese Hina Hayata and 23rd-ranked Chen Szu-Yu of Chinese Taipei to become the first Indian woman to medal at the event. Her results a bit up and down this year, Manika went past Chen again and Korea’s Joo Cheonhui (ranked 21st currently) en route a semi-final show at the WTT Contender Doha in January and beat Chinese Taipei’s Cheng I-Ching (15th) to make the WTT Star Contender Ljubljana quarter-finals in July.

If the Indian walks into a quality draw bringing her A game, she can give even some top players a run for their money.

“I try and bring out a better version of myself when I play a big tournament. It motivates me. And they were special moments — when I won the Asian Cup bronze, the CWG gold, Asian Games medal,” Manika said. “Going into any event, though, I try to focus on the present and not carry any pressure. No matter if I’m coming off a win or loss, I instead like to focus on how much I can improve before a particular tournament.”

After competing in the team event at the Asian Table Tennis Championships earlier this month— the women’s team finished sixth — Manika gave a walkover from her singles Round of 64 rubber due to a minor ankle sprain, with her “focus on the Asian Games”. The 28-year-old pays greater attention to rehab and recovery now, she said, especially with an increasingly crowded calendar comprising international tournaments and a domestic league.

“If I see myself as a player from 6-7 years ago to now, there has been a lot of difference. Recovery and rehab have become an important factor,” Manika, on a visit to Mumbai where she has access to Reliance Foundation’s ecosystem in aspects like rehab and strength and conditioning, said. “Special focus areas are the knee, ankle and back. As I’m tall, I have to bend more, and so I have to keep my back and knee fully fit.”

The forehand, to go with her long-pimpled rubber, had been identified as an area of improvement after she began working with former player Aman Balgu in Hyderabad before the Asian Cup. Getting to her attacking self from that wing has a direct relation to her level of confidence. Which, Manika believes, has been higher this year after a medal-less 2022 CWG.

“My confidence, especially after the CWG and Asian Cup, has gone up considerably now. Not only my confidence but even my game. I have improved my forehand. For that, confidence is key,” she said. “The important bit is to execute what I’ve been doing in practice into tournaments, where, no doubt, there will be pressure. How we handle that will matter, not just in the Asian Games but in other tournaments going ahead too.”

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