CWG 2022 Analysis: Where did the Indian women's table tennis team's campaign go wrong?
Reflecting on the Indian women's table tennis team's heartbreak in the quarters of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, coach Anindita Chakraborty explains which factors played in the loss of Manika Batra & Co.
Like dominoes falling one after another, strange things took place when the defending champions - the Indian women's table tennis team, albeit with a new-look squad, lost to a lower-ranked Malaysia in the women's team quarterfinals of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022.
Heaped with a lot of expectations, the Manika Batra-led team failed to deliver a medal from the Games but also suffered a string of heartbreaking losses, both outside the team event as well, easily costing them an easy reach of at least, two or three more medals.
In the aftermath of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, where the entire Indian table tennis contingent has returned with 5 medals - a gold in the men's team, a gold in the men's singles, a gold in the mixed doubles, a silver in the men's doubles and a bronze in the men's singles, The Bridge caught up with the women's team coach, Anindita Chakraborty, who was there on the sidelines of the teams during the Games, to find out how matters unravelled in the women's squad.
Although it has been a few days, the gutting loss against Malaysia and the chance to medal still haunts the women's side.
"We didn't know what to expect against Malaysia. It's not even like they play regularly on the WTT tour, so we had no opportunity of knowing as well," Anindita explains, citing the unknown factor of their competition as a probable reason for their loss.
"Overall it has been a big learning experience for us, we did enjoy it, but there was also some obvious tension in the camp," Chakraborty says with a nervous laugh.
"It won't make sense, in retrospect, to now say that if someone else played the match against Malaysia, we might have won it," she continues.
"The opposition from the Malaysian team was excellent - they had a right-hander, a left-hander, a chopper and a pen-holder. All four paddlers were of different types and it wasn't even like the Malaysian paddlers play regularly on the circuit, therefore nobody was really familiar with their game. They were completely unknown, which made it tough for us," Chakraborty breaks it down.
Pressure on Manika
With India losing the first women's doubles against Malaysia in the team event, a lot of pressure had automatically come on 4-time Commonwealth Games medallist Manika Batra, who knew she had to step up.
"That day, the boxes didn't tick for Manika, it was just another bad day in the office for her as she lost to the left-hander. But yes, even the Malaysian, Karen Lyne, against whom Manika lost, played really well," Anindita admitted.
"None of us, neither the players nor the coaches knew what to expect from Malaysia."
Moreover, with controversies surrounding Indian table tennis currently where the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) was disbanded, a National Coach got suspended and even more recently, controversial selections to the CWG squad took place, it wasn't the best mental state for Manika to be in either, feels Anindita.
"Manika wasn't in the best of forms on that day, she won the first match (against Ying Ho) in a decider too."
"The expectations were too high for Manika and that pressure got to her in the clutch moments. In 2018, she was the junior-most player in the squad as the team had Mouma Das and others.
Here the tables had turned, Manika was the one who is the most senior and charged with leading a team."
With the women's team medal going amiss and a lack-lustre outing in her singles and doubles campaigns, Batra's CWG 2022 campaign was bitter more than sweet, especially since she has known the high of winning gold at the Games from 2018.
"She is trying to cope with it, of course, this isn't going to be easy because the Games come only once in four years."
"But even if it hurts, she will learn from it and quickly move on to focus on the World Championships coming up next," Anindita explained.
A tale of near-misses
On paper, it might look like the women's table tennis team underperformed but it would be a gross understatement because well into the group stages, the girls were shining brilliantly and when the occasion came, they were stepping up or at least attempting to - with the trio of debutants in the squad - Reeth, Diya and especially, Sreeja doing their fair bit.
"Sreeja's singles bronze match against Australia's Yangzi Liu was so heartbreaking as was the semi-finals too, which she lost to 3-time Olympic medallist Tianwei Feng of Singapore after putting on a solid fight."
If any one player has been a revelation and a true performer it has to be the reigning National Champion in singles, Sreeja Akula, other than the veteran Sharath Kamal, of course.
With Manika facing some hiccups in her campaign, it was Sreeja Akula who rose and shone, playing in her first-ever multi-sporting extravaganza of this standard. Pairing well with Sharath, she won the gold in Mixed Doubles too and was also dangerously close to medalling in Women's Singles and the Doubles, with partner Reeth, as well.
While the Indian women's table tennis team will have too many learnings to ponder upon, the men's team with Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran leading the pack, can give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done at the Games, and continue the momentum for the World Championships.