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Asian Games: From Naihati to Hangzhou - table tennis players Ayhika and Sutirtha dream big

India's first WTT Contender title-winning women's doubles pair of Sutirtha and Ayhika - the Mukherjee sisters of Naihati - are embarking on a fresh challenge of winning an Asian Games medal in Hangzhou.

Asian Games: From Naihati to Hangzhou - table tennis players Ayhika and Sutirtha dream big

FILE PHOTO: Sutirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee celebrating their win. 


Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 25 Sep 2023 4:46 AM GMT

They are commonly referred to as Mukherjee sisters in the Indian table tennis circle. Both of them were born in the same town and grew up together and learnt table tennis at the same academy. But this epithet resonated more effectively since they paired up in 2022, 18 years after they were enrolled into the paddle sport, and won India’s first-ever women's doubles WTT Contender title in Tunis in June this year.

Ranked 16th in the world, the women's doubles pair of Sutirtha and Ayhika have now emerged as India's strong medal hope at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou.

But Abhijit Mukherjee cannot exactly recall the reason why he has enrolled his bulky daughter, Sutirtha Mukherjee, to a table tennis academy. Noone from his locality in Naihati, West Bengal, nor in his family had any tradition of playing any sports at the professional level. He never planned to make her only daughter, Sutirtha, a professional athlete either.

“We did not have any expectations and ambitions. We did it just because she was bulky," says Abhijit, sitting in a small drawing room, marked with trophies and medals in the cabinets, in his Madral Banerjee Para residence.

"One of our relatives just told us that sports could also be a career option and one can get a job," he adds.

Sutirtha was enrolled at Rishi Bankim Chandra Academy under the coaching of Mihir Ghosh at the Naihati Youth Association club.

A reluctant girl

The story is from 2004 when Sutirtha was just six. She won her first medal in the team event in her maiden appearance at the national championships in 2006. Sutirtha would become a sub-junior national champion in 2009, her first individual title. More medals followed. In 2012, she became the junior national champion. In 2017 and 2019, she won the senior national championships. But Sutirtha was a stubborn girl. In the beginning, she lacked interest in the sport too.

"Initially, Sutirtha was not willing to play. She had no interest at all. But Mihir da was a strict coach. Sutirtha took two years to discover her penchant for table tennis," says Abhijit, who works in the Army.

But now, Abhijit and Nita are proud parents. It is evident in the bright smiles they put on their faces while narrating the stories of every trophy that Sutirtha won. Proud of their Olympian daughter, they built a new house in 2018 and named it Sutirtha.

That Sutirtha and Ayhika Mukherjee have emerged as India's number-one women's doubles pair is possible because of their parents' dedication, courage and sacrifice. The parents set aside their middle-class mindset to enlighten their daughters' path to glory.

They did not force their daughters to study, secure a government job and give up their careers in sports like other Indian parents living in a small town.

"We never had imposed our wishes on Sutirtha. Once she became the national champion, we wanted our daughter to continue to play the sport. Sutirtha too never thought about giving up the sport after getting the job," says Nita.

Mommy's girl: Ayhika

Soma Mukherjee, Ayhika's mother, says, "I introduced her to table tennis at the age of five in 2004. I wanted Ayhika to play a sport instead of learning singing or dancing which is common among Bengali children."

"I inducted Ayhika into Mihir Da's table tennis academy to keep her busy and boost her mental and physical well-being. Also, because my father-in-law and husband played football," adds Soma.

Young and rising paddlers Sutirtha and Ayhika have always shown their inclination to play and do better in categories above their age.

"Even when they were too young, both Sutirtha and Ayhika had the ability to beat the senior players. They played in all three categories - junior, youth and women's – simultaneously. And they have different styles to back up each other’s game that also made them a dangerous pair," says Mihir Ghosh.

Ghosh adds: "Sutirtha has been a burly girl since childhood. But she never let it be her disadvantage. She works hard on her fitness. I have never seen her skipping the training."

Sutirtha overcomes the challenge of being bulky in a fast sport, pulling the hard yards, and she now optimises her strong arms to pull off the winners.

Starting their careers, both Sutirtha and Ayhika faced identical problems, with their parents dealing with social prejudices.

"When she was young, nobody supported our decision to make her play. People often used to ask me, ‘What Ayhika would achieve by playing table tennis?’ There were also unacceptable comments on her attire as well. But her father, uncles and aunts always backed her," recalls Soma, a housewife.

To support Ayhika, her father, Gautam Mukherjee, quit his job with Border Security Force (BSF) in 2010 and dedicated himself to building his daughter's sports career.

'Natural bonding'

To build a successful pairing, Ayhika and Sutirtha have developed a special camaraderie and off the court they spend time together.

"First of all, we are childhood friends and like sisters. We grew up together and are now part of the Indian team and train at the same academy. Our friendship helps us understand each other’s minds deeply," says Sutirtha.

Their contrasting styles of play also augured well for them. Ayhika’s slow yet defensive play helps Sutirtha, who is a natural attacking paddler, to pick the ball and fetch points with mighty down-the-line smashes. They might have paired up only a year ago, but that they had known each other since childhood and shared a strong friendship proved to be a boon for their partnership.

Elaborating further Ayhika, 26, says, "We do not have to do anything special to build the bonding. We mostly stay together off the court. It is natural for us as we know each other since our childhood days. Our sisterhood is very strong. We always back each other in every situation. So, the bonding has developed naturally."

This natural essence in their alliance came in handy as they soon emerged as India's top women's doubles combination after much deliberation. At the National Games 2022, they won the gold medal but the selectors overlooked them for the World Table Tennis Championships in Durban.

But that did not cause any trouble for Sutirtha and Ayhika. At the international level, the pair reached their first final at the WTT Contender Muscat last year after just one tournament together. They could not win the tournament but beat the top-seeded Diaz sisters of Puerto Rico en route to the summit clash.

That they are training at the same academy under former paddler turned coach Soumyadeep Roy, after Ayhika reunited with Sutirtha in May, worked wonders.

This year at the WTT Contender Tunis, they clinched their maiden Contender title, which Sutirtha called the most 'stunning achievement' of their career.

"This win boosted our confidence. It also made us believe that we can beat top pairs and win trophies. We became more focused after this win," stresses Sutirtha.

“If we retain this momentum going into the Asian Games, we can of course return home with a positive result and that would be a great feat ahead of the Olympics next year,” adds the 27-year-old.

'Will not settle for anything less than a medal'

Sutirtha and Ayhika are now confident of sealing their names in the history of Indian sports with a medal in the Asian Games in Hangzhou.

"Our partnership is quite unique. We use different rubbers and do not play with plain rubbers," says Ayhika, who plays with anti-spin rubber.

Asked about their chances in the Asiad, Sutirtha, who played in the Tokyo Olympics, says, "Our preparation is good for the Asian Games. We will not settle for anything less than a medal."

Ayhika has a different approach. "We will give our 100 per cent. But I do not want to think about what would happen here. I choose not to think about the result. But I strongly believe that we can win a medal if we give our best shot. We will fight till the end and the rest lies with the god," says Ayhika.

That the combination defeated world no. 1 Jeon Jihee and Shin Yubin in the semifinals of the WTT Contender Tunis and the young Japanese pair of Miyuu Kihara and Miwa Harimoto in the final, it bodes well for them.

Sutirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee display their trophies after winning the WTT Contender Tunis womens doubles title in June 2023. (Photo credit: Special Arrangement)

While the eyes are on a podium finish at the Asian Games, the Naihati duo has other goals to pull off, for instance, breaking into the top 10 in the world. They made a quarterfinal finish at the Asian Table Tennis Championships, where they lost to world no. 3 Wang Manyu Chen Meng of China in the quarterfinals early in September.

"We have entered the top 20 just after playing a few tournaments. We both believe if we can play more, we can easily make it to the top 10," says Ayhika.

Back in India, the Mukherjee families of Naihati and the boisterous table tennis fraternity of the locality are waiting eagerly to see Sutirtha and Ayhika attaining the Asian Games glory.

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