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Table Tennis

How Ayhika Mukherjee baffled the Chinese with her anti-spin rubber

Even as fast rallies flew around her, Ayhika Mukherjee chop-blocked the Chinese world no.2 to clinch India's first-ever TT women's doubles medal at the Asian Games. This slow, deceptive style of play by 'Tricky Ayhika' stunned the world, but there was a time when other parents had complained about it.

How Ayhika Mukherjee baffled the Chinese with her anti-spin rubber
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Ayhika Mukherjee in action at the Asian Table Tennis Championships in Korea. (Photo credit: ayhika.m/Instagram) 

By

Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 28 Oct 2023 8:00 AM GMT

Wang Yidi went for the kill, imparting a venomous spin; Sutirtha Mukherjee engaged in the speedy rally; Yidi spun it again towards Ayhika Mukherjee - who chop-blocked it. The ball dropped once and then twice to leave Meng Chen, moving back and forth in hesitation, befuddled. Once again, Ayhika had successfully manipulated the pace and spin of the rally to leave Wang Yidi and Meng Chen stunned.

It was the table tennis women's doubles quarterfinal of the Hangzhou Asian Games. The match had gone off script. The Chinese pair - the reigning world champions - looked clueless against world no. 17 Ayhika and Sutirtha's double-edged game of block and attack. With her improvised yet slow game of deceptions, Ayhika caught the attention of the world. She unleashed different strokes with an identical action, forcing the world no. 2 pair to keep guessing throughout the match.

“The Chinese were unable to asses our game," Ayhika told The Bridge in a telephonic interview.

Ayhika's task was to slow the pace and cut down on forehand smashes from their nimble-footed Chinese opponents so that Sutirtha could fetch the winners with her explosive forehand killers.

Ayhika Mukherjee uses pimple rubber on her forehand and chops block attacks with her anti-spin rubber.
Ayhika Mukherjee uses pimple rubber on her forehand and chops block attacks with her anti-spin rubber.

"My game is to break the pace and spin, whereas Sutirtha’s game is about fast forehand smashes. The Chinese could not counter our variation. They were unable to understand which stroke would go deep and which one would come slowly," Ayhika revealed.

"When Wang Yidi served, I played the return. Meng Cheng then spun the ball to which Sutirtha sent a forehand smash. Yidi tried to up the pace but Meng Cheng was confused to see the ball dropping twice as I manipulated the spin and pace of the rally. And because of my ambiguous action, they could not understand our plans. It was big trouble for them," Ayhika added.

When Ayhika went to take tips from their Indian coach Mamta Prabhu, she saw the Chinese players looking at them baffled. “They were standing perplexed,” said Ayhika adding, “I sensed that they could not even understand the reflexes of our rubber. Some of my shots went deep and some went short. Their coach could not offer them any tips.”

It was the first time, the Chinese – the reigning world champions – were facing the Indian pair, and they were left completely at sea.

It was because of her deceptive game, that she has been nicknamed Tricky Ayhika. It was also because of this that Ayhika did not move much during the rallies, even though it might have looked strange. She knew she would win points by decelerating the rallies.

With this rare defence-offence combination, the Mukherjee sisters of Naihati clinched India’s first-ever women's doubles WTT Contender title in Tunis in June this year and embarked on a historic journey from Naihati to Hangzhou.

Explaining the nuances of her game, Ayhika said, "When we play with plain rubber, we can return with the same speed. But with anti-spin rubber, I can slow down the pace and play the ball short. Usually there will be faster and longer rallies with plain rubbers."

"But against me, the opponents cannot play faster rallies. I will decelerate the pace and that will force them to go back and forth. Everyone wants the ball closer to their body. Normally, players stay ready to counter spin. But everything alters against my style of play," said Ayhika.

Blessing in disguise

For Ayhika, though, her inability to acquire the essential skill of table tennis - top spin - turned out to be a blessing. She is an unorthodox paddler and has an improvised game. She moves slowly but preys on opponents’ top spins with her anti-spin rubber, the softer and spongy side of the paddle.

On the backhand of her wooden paddle, Ayhika has anti-spin rubber pasted, while her forehand has a pimple or dotted rubber - which Sutirtha, for instance, uses on both sides to create her rapid attacks.

Coach Mihir Ghosh sensed Ayhika’s inefficacy in playing spin very early when she was a young trainee at Naihati Youth Association Club. It was Mihir who introduced Ayhika to anti-spin rubber in 2008.

'Never could develop spin'

"When I started playing, I used to play with a pimple rubber that most of the players use. But I never could develop spin; I never had the action. So, coach Mihir Ghosh wanted me to try anti-spin rubber just to see how I play with that," asserted Ayhika.

"He was the first coach to teach me the style that I need to play with anti-spin rubber. He also taught me how to deceive the opponents and convert their attacks into our points," she added.

However, in the beginning, adapting to the new rubber was a struggle for Ayhika. There was a time when the thought of quitting even crossed her mind.

"The plain and anti-spin rubber has heaven and hell difference in terms of technique and usage. At first, when I used anti-spin rubber, I could not understand how to play with it. At one point, I felt it was better to go back to the pimple rubber. But I did not give up," said Ayhika.

Over time, she adjusted to the anti-spin rubber and became the cynosure of all eyes in the domestic circuit. As a prodigy, she swept all district and state-level youth tournaments. She was also the number one paddler in nursery and cadet – Under 10 and U12 groups.

“When I was handed the anti-spin rubber, I used to watch videos and tried to learn new strokes. Some of my strokes were unique in the Indian context. People back then started praising me – ‘she has a good sense and can invent her own game’. This boosted my confidence to make a better use of the rubber," she noted.

But as her skills with the anti-spin rubber became polished, Ayhika also had to face a new struggle - the bullying of other parents. Some children's parents whom Ayhika beat held a conception that she was taking unethical advantage.

"Since childhood, I was accused of winning because of my usage of anti-spin rubber," recalled Ayhika.

But coach Mihir came to her rescue and took the task of busting the myth.

"You need to learn to play with the rubber, rubber does not make you play," Mihir, a vehement supporter of his pupil, told the skeptical parents.

As Ayhika started doing well in domestic as well as international youth events, she got her first sponsor, who has stayed with Ayhika ever since. In 2014, she played four junior Asian events. At the World Junior Championships, she defeated two players ranked in the top 10 and won two Tour titles.

"When I was performing well, my local rubber supplier asked me to approach Dr. Neubauer, the German equipment maker, detailing my performances. Dr. Neubauer has been the sponsor of my equipment since then," she said.

Ayhika further polished her skill and game when she came under the tutelage of players-turned-coaches Soumyadeep Roy and Poulomi Ghatak at Dhanuka Dhunseri Table Tennis Academy in Kolkata. "They helped me to hone my skills with anti-spin rubber and develop newer strokes," said Ayhika.

Work in progress

Even though Ayhika was praised for her defensive skills, for years, she was a one-dimensional player. To make her complete, more polished, and skilled as a player, her coach Soumyadeep started working on her forehand.

“Even during the national camp, foreign coach Massimo Costantini worked on my forehand. Now as I train under Soumyadeep da, he has also been working on my forehand to polish my attacks," said Ayhika.

"He says, it is fine if I deceive the opponents, but a player will get hold of the functions of my rubber after playing me a couple of times. So, if I do not work on my forehand and attack, I will never be able to play consistently at the top level. At the Asian Games I got proof of that. It is not possible to trick the opponent every time," she observed.

In the semifinal, the North Korean pair Chu Suyong and Pak Sugyong, a surprise package in the quadrennial showpiece due to their prolonged absence from international events, tamed the Indian juggernauts with their unconventional game.

“They were intelligent. From our side as well, there were several unforced errors. I missed a couple of pushes and Sutirtha missed a few receives. That first game lead helped them a lot. But throughout the game, they countered us intelligently," observed Ayhika.

For Ayhika and Sutirtha, it was a disadvantage since there was no way to evaluate the North Koreans’ game style as nothing is available about them on YouTube. In contrast, the North Koreans analysed their games beforehand. Yet, with their chop block and smashes, Ayhika and Sutirtha created history, winning Indian table tennis' first-ever women's doubles bronze medal at the Asian Games.

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