India's most-recognised paddler Manika Batra has been through ups and downs in her career in the last couple of years. The last two years haven't yielded much success for her following a stellar 2018, which rose her status in the Indian table tennis fraternity. Batra led the Indian women's team to a gold medal win in the final against four-time gold medalists and defending champions Singapore at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. She also paved the way for India's maiden silver medal in the women's doubles category at CWG. She won 4 medals in 4 events she was participating out of which 2 are gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze medal.
The success from 2018 has continued to earn her accolades, which transpired into her becoming the country’s first ever paddler to be conferred with the Khel Ratna award in August 2020.
"It was a great honour to be conferred with such a big award. I think for any athlete it would draw a big inspiration and it was truly the highlight of my professional career this year. I was always focused on my training and the award just added a further push for me to work harder," says Batra in an exclusive interview with The Bridge.
Manika Batra earned stellar success in 2018
At just 25, winning India’s highest sporting honour can either propel or burden the young shoulders of a player who is yet to fully stamp her mark on the professional table tennis tour. The year 2018 was overall a watershed one for Indian table tennis, four medals at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (singles and team gold, doubles silver, mixed doubles bronze) and an even more commendable and historic mixed doubles bronze with the veteran Sharath Kamal at the Jakarta Asian Games.
It helped bring the sport in the spotlight in India. After becoming the first Indian woman table tennis player to break into the top 50 of the world rankings in February 2019, Batra has seen a gradual downward curve in both her rankings and form. Spending the majority of 2020 in lockdown after shifting her base in Pune from Delhi, Batra has been working on her strokes and technicalities. "Most importantly the consistency and overall level of quality training is something that I'm getting in Pune which was not the case in Delhi. And in TT when you improve one thing it helps to improve other strokes as well. So I'm focusing on all the aspects of my game and the best thing is I get to work on new technical problems every day which is helping me to progress," Batra responds.
Batra made it to the Round of 32 at the ITTF World Tour German Open in October 2019 and went a step further to the Round of 16 at the Hungarian Open in February 2020 before the pandemic halted the ITTF tour. The current world No 63 though couldn’t lead the women’s team to a berth at the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics in a qualification tournament in Portugal prior to that, Batra remains confident of turning the tide soon as she still has chances in making it to the Olympics in singles and in the mixed doubles' draw. She adds, “My priority is to do well at the 2021 Olympics in whatever opportunity that comes my way but I would like to reach my peak before that with some good performances in tournaments in the run up to it. I will try to give my best and that's the only thing I am focused at."
Manika Batra at the Commonwealth Games in 2018
Despite her recent dip in rankings, it cannot be denied that Batra has been a game-changer for Indian table tennis, like the Sainas or Sindhus in badminton or Phogats in wrestling. And Batra draws inspiration from all these women who gave India a breakthrough. "PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Deepa Malik, Sania Mirza, Hima Das, Anjali Bhagwat and many such other athletes are an inspiration for all of us. Needless to say, Mary Kom with her life struggles is an inspiring figure along with sports even in the other walks of life," quips Batra.
Unlike West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, Delhi is not known for its rich table tennis heritage. Batra remains the most popular name coming from the capital and she believes, table tennis in Delhi has been pretty competitive.
"I think the competition was always there in Delhi right from the start. I always found it tough since the start of my journey and I feel the level of competition was also good. I think TT as a culture in the country is evolving at a great speed and I am lucky to have found my way to the top," she concludes.