Amidst Tokyo gloom, table tennis is the unexpected star at the Olympics
With medal predictions missing bullseye, table tennis ping-ponged its way to script history for India aided by top-notch performances by all Indian paddlers.
Perhaps this is how every great story goes - spilling out of formulaic expectations and setting off on a trajectory we did not see coming because our mind was too busy waiting for the 'expected'. It has been 4 days so far since the Tokyo Olympics took off and Indian fans have been made to surf tall waves of extreme emotions of joy, despair, anguish, chaos, frustration, you name it - the tide not willing to pacify at all. As we tried to pick ourselves up and rued over our hopes being all over the place, it was at that instance that table tennis twinkled to life - and the unlikely star of the Tokyo Olympics for India, was born.
After the shooters and archers missed their aims and made us all scratch our heads and stare down at the predictions we had carefully plotted and strike them out with the heaviest of hearts - it was table tennis, which out of nowhere came around to steal the show. No one really saw it coming - how could they, given that history hasn't been very merciful to the Indian paddlers especially at the stage of the Olympics.
Yet, perhaps that's where the magic truly lies of what happened - table tennis became the talking point as all 4 Indian paddlers - Manika Batra, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Achanta Sharath Kamal and Sutirtha Mukherjee displayed class and got rave scores on the board and the overwhelming majority among them raptly knocked on the doors of history.
The unlikely star - table tennis twinkles amidst everything
Day 1 of the Tokyo Olympics began with loud sighs and a lot of - 'Oh, poof, there they go!' armchair-commentary when the 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist pair of Achanta Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra were whitewashed in their opening match by Lin Yun-ju/Cheng I-Ching, the World No. 1 duo from Chinese Taipei. Although the Sharath-Manika pair gave a 11-8 fight in the first game of the match, none of it really counted against the third seeds at the Tokyo Olympics as they raced to win the match, 11-8, 11-6, 11-5, 11-4.
A lot of opinions were exchanged immediately after the match and the questions floated up. Going into the Tokyo Olympics, all paddlers and even the Chief National Coach, Soumyadeep Roy believed that it will be the Mixed Doubles which has the best chance of medalling at the Games because the individual events are stomping grounds of the Chinese, Japanese and Korean teams.
But lo, and behold - with Manika Batra heading out to play against Ho-Tin Tin, the mood in the table tennis camp majorly switched.
Having collected 4 medals - one of at least, every hue at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, Manika Batra shrugged off her loss in the Mixed Doubles and produced a stunning performance in her first round match against Ho-Tin Tin, winning 4-0, to enter her name in the books of history again. Sailing into the Round of 64, Batra became the first Indian woman paddler in nearly three decades - 29 years, to be exact, to win a first round encounter at the Olympics.
And with that win, people sat up and started to take notice as nobody really expected too much from the Individual events. But this is also perhaps the Olympics which is determined to swing in different directions and give us surprises - both pleasant as well as unpleasant, in generous quantities. And table tennis did just that - giving us reasons to smile and beam proudly as Manika Batra created history and getting the wind of that, even an underrated Sutirtha Mukherjee made a fantastic debut and won against the higher-ranked Linda Bergström - the celebrations had started, and for good reason.
Manika Batra became the chanting charm of the nation as she didn't stop at the Round of 64 but also fought past the World No. 32 experienced paddler Margaryta Pesotska in a 7 games thriller, where Batra won 4-3 and entered the pre-quarter finals of the Tokyo Olympics. Without a coach by her side, Batra fared on and dared into territories untouched previously and with that etched her name permanently in the history books before Austria's Sofia Polcanova cut short the fairytale run.
In the men's event as well, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, the World No. 38 and quite the hot stuff on the block opened his match bravely against Lam Siu-hang of Hong Kong and even bounced back to take the second and third games in the Round of 32 clash - but it was not to be. Throughout the encounter against Siu-hang, Sathiyan showed his skills - firing winners and silky forehand flicks, and it clearly marked just how much the level of table tennis has improved in the country.
However, the history-making act was reserved for Achanta Sharath Kamal, the 39-year-old veteran paddler who is giving us new reasons everyday to fan over him with his table tennis masterclasses on the board. After taming a tricky Tiago Apoliona in the Round of 64 match, Sharath became the second Indian and first male paddler to enter the third round of the Olympics and booked himself a date with the legendary Chinese and reigning Olympic champion, Ma Long.
In what was expected to be an one-sided show in favour of the Chinese, became quite the nerve-wracking thriller as Sharath cashed in on his experience, stealing a game from Long and at key points, making him run for his money - an event which was never likely to happen, even a few years back.
A new dawn for Indian table tennis?
However, we have now come to the end of table tennis medal hopes from India in this edition of the Olympics taking place in the Land of the Rising Sun - but if anything, more important than a medal, the Tokyo Olympics have given us hope and a new dawn for Indian table tennis.
The Bridge got in touch with former Olympian paddler, Pouloumi Ghatak, who is also the wife of the current Chief National Coach of Indian, Soumyadeep Roy, to discuss this surge in the curve of table tennis.
A tinge of excitement in her voice, Ghatak mentions, "There is no doubt that the graph of table tennis is going upward very rapidly, there is no doubt about that. As it is, it used to be extremely difficult to even qualify for the Olympics and even if they did, it would be one or two from the South-East Asia quota and now we had 4 paddlers in individuals and India made it to the Mixed Doubles too!"
"Only 16 entries are allowed from all over the world and so qualifying in something like that is absolutely amazing. Just 2 match wins over there and you could get your hands on a medal - Manika and Sharath couldn't play their best perhaps at the Olympics and lost but they did excel at the 2018 Asian Games and even in the Olympic qualifiers - they were sensational," Ghatak says, full of praises for the duo.
Having practically rubbed shoulders with both Manika Batra and Sutirtha Mukherjee and watching them from close quarters, Poulomi, courtesy of her career as a paddler has been able to notice the growth curve extremely well.
Full of admiration, she goes on, "Both Sutirtha and Manika have developed a lot over the past few years - their entire body language, thought process..everything has changed. If you compare the performance of our paddlers from even 2 Olympics ago, you will be able to see the changes," she says. "It is no joke to play such close matches with such top players. If this is the graph we have now, it is safe to say that within the next 4-8 years, it is realistic to expect a medal from the Olympics in table tennis," she resolves optimistically and we cannot help but agree with her more.