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Table Tennis

Could India's quest for first Olympic medal in table tennis be a reality in mixed doubles?

2018 Asiad bronze medallist mixed doubles duo of Sharath Kamal-Manika Batra are the country's best hopes for a maiden medal in table tennis at the Tokyo Olympics.

Table Tennis Tokyo Olympics Sharath-Manika

Sharath and Manika win the pre-quarterfinal at Tokyo Olympics (Source: AFP)


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 18 Jun 2021 9:46 AM GMT

While it's generally ambiguous to determine what will happen when you pair the most veteran paddler on the circuit with an up-and-coming sensation, one thing is guaranteed – the results can be quite explosive. In the case of 9-time National Champion, Achanta Sharath Kamal and 2018 Commonwealth Games quadruple medallist, Manika Batra – the pairing has worked like magic and fetched them a coveted bronze at the 2018 Asian Games and only recently, earned them a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics!

Sharath Kamal, who is the been-there-done-it-all figure in Indian table tennis and is responsible for the popularity of the sport, paired up with the young Manika Batra to knock on the doors of history. At the Asian Olympic Qualifiers held at Doha in March, the Sharath-Manika combine produced a gritty performance and defeated the No. 5 pair of Lee Sang-su and Jeon Ji-hee from Korea in the finals.

This momentous win over the Koreans have given a huge confidence boost to the Indian duo who earned themselves a spot in the Mixed Doubles event at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics with that win. Given the high waves the World No. 18 pair are currently surfing on, it can be safe to say that India's medal chance in table tennis is the strongest in the Mixed Doubles, which will debut at the Olympics this year.

The magic of the Sharath Kamal-Manika Batra duo

Manika Batra and Sharath Kamal after their 2018 Asiad bronze medal win, Image Source: PTI

We've seen it before already. In the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games, the Sharath-Manika pair had a dream run as they took just 38 minutes to defeat the North Korean pair of An Ji Song and Cha Hyo Sim 3-2 (4-11, 12-10, 6-11, 11-6, 11-8) in the quarter-finals. Sailing into the semis, a rave feat by an Indian duo, Sharath-Manika suffered a loss to the Chinese pair of Wang Chuqin and Sun Yingsha in 4-1 (9-11, 5-11, 13-11, 4-11, 8-11) and settled for a bronze, the first-ever by an Indian at this event.

However, behind the magic of Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra's combination lies a very effective strategy. Both being tall players, controlling the pace of a match becomes utmost important for better shot-making and to avoid clumsy movement during the points. What works most for this duo is their ability to constantly switch the pace of the match and disrupt the rhythm of their opponents.

Manika Batra, who uses a long pimple variety of rubber and has really mastered the art of it, can use the anti-rubber to slow the pace of a ball, change the spin, the length of a ball and allow for the opponent to make mistakes. Once the pace is slowed, Sharath Kamal's tactic, by her side, is to notch up the speed the very next moment. This kind of combination of high speed-low speed, spin and anti-spin provokes confusion in the opponent's game and makes room for errors which works in the favour of Sharath-Manika who seize on every such opportunity.

"Manika slows down the game very well because of her style of play. I can take it up to the highest speed. So, she brings it to very low speed and from there I take it to high speed. That change in speed is what puts opponents into difficulty," said Sharath in an interview with the Hindustan Times.

Spearheading the hopes of the Indian table tennis contingent will be Manika Batra and Sharath Kamal and even the Chief National Coach for Tokyo, Soumyadeep Roy, sincerely believes in the potent chances of this duo to bring home the first Olympic medal for India in table tennis.

Speaking to The Bridge in an exclusive interview, Arjuna awardee Soumyadeep Roy mentions, "We are focussing a lot on the mixed doubles. We have the best chance in it. We defeated the World No. 5 and qualified, so that's a big positive."

Due to start a training camp for the Olympics from the 17th of June in Sonepat, Roy explains, "There will be only 16 teams at the Olympic Games, so if we have a good draw and if we have our day, anything can happen," Soumyadeep Roy added with conviction.

With medal prospects looming large, even Sharath Kamal feels the same way, "In a draw of 16, we are just three matches away from a medal," said the 38-year-old in an interview with PTI .

Mixed Doubles to make a debut at the Tokyo Olympics

Manika Batra and Sharath Kamal are looking to create history at Tokyo

The Tokyo Olympics will see the mixed doubles being a part of its fray for the first time. Earlier, table tennis only had four medals on offer – the men's and women's singles, the men's and women's team events. However, with mixed doubles being included, there is a scope for a fifth medal to be secured and the competition is expected to get more intense.

Unlike the other categories in table tennis, mixed doubles will see only one pair from every qualifying nation compete for the podium spots. Played out in a knock-out format the excitement around the inclusion of the mixed doubles is intense. Even though a medal can be won by winning 3 matches - it's rarely an easy feat especially at the stage of the Olympics but it is the most realistic and feasible one for India.

Roy is wary of the fact but is definitely hopeful as he says, "Everybody is tough at the Olympics. All the best players will be present. Every match is a do-or-die one. However, considering the place our players are in, they can defeat anybody on a given day," Roy further reassured.

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