EXCLUSIVE: Resurgent paddler Sutirtha Mukherjee fulfills her mother's Olympic dream
2-time National Champion Sutirtha Mukherjee's rocky table tennis journey has been charged with cheers from her mother, who has prompted her to debut at the Olympics.
Call it the work of serendipity teamed with sheer hard work but table tennis star Sutirtha Mukherjee's journey to earning a quota at the Tokyo Olympics is nothing short of a dream breathing into reality. With roots in the small town of Naihati, West Bengal's Sutirtha Mukherjee first gripped a table tennis bat when she was just another tiny-tot in the second standard, egged on by her mother's desire. Since then, Mukherjee has forged an inseparable bond with the bat and that has seen her through her highs and lows and has now granted her the opportunity to debut at the Tokyo Olympics.
With hand-countable days left before the Tokyo Games begins in full-force, Sutirtha Mukherjee, along with fellow Olympic-qualifying paddlers, Manika Batra and Achanta Sharath Kamal are busy training hard in a camp at Sonipat, Haryana. Meanwhile, the remaining member of the quadra-force heading to the Games, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran is fine-tuning his skills back in his hometown in Chennai.
Taking time out of her busy schedule, Sutirtha Mukherjee, all of 25, spoke to The Bridge from Sonipat, her voice ecstatic, cheerful and hopeful as the Olympic dream of hers is now going to be a reality.
"Like every player, I even wanted to represent my nation at the Olympics. It has been my dream to play there since childhood. In fact, it was my mother's dream to see me at that level.," she beamingly says, "I was always serious about sports - I was determined to do something about it and excel too. But, I never expected to be here when I started out, honestly," Mukherjee says. "Now that it is finally coming true, I'm feeling very excited and happy to be able to participate at the Olympics. I want to go out there and really cause an impact, let's see. I want to enjoy it, go in with a positive mindset and give my very best," Sutirtha gushes, channeling the potpourri of emotions she feels.
Quite the mother's girl, Sutirtha ascribes her success till date to both her parents and especially her mother, who has dedicated her life in moulding Sutirtha as the star paddler she is today. A 2-time National Champion, Mukherjee's journey has been quite dramatic and a lot of people had practically written her off. But, Sutirtha Mukherjee has blocked her way past her nay-sayers and rallied straight-up ahead to prove that table tennis can be just about anyone's cup of tea, if it's brimming with talent.
The driving forces behind Sutirtha Mukherjee's climb to success
An integral member of the gold-medal winning 2018 CWG women's table tennis team, Sutirtha Mukherjee, is a fine example of how players are fashioned really and what sets them apart from the others. First off, Sutirtha found her biggest cheerleader in her mother who had planted the seed of table tennis in her when she was barely six years old.
"My mother loved indoor sports. However, she never got the opportunity to play it due to financial issues. With me, hence, she wanted to make her dream come true and she enrolled me in table tennis at the local club. I did not have any idea about the sport back then," Mukherjee reveals with an innocent chuckle, as she goes down the memory lane.
Soon Sutirtha's passion for table tennis surfaced and she began tasting success which kept her motivated. Shifting to Jadavpur, Kolkata to properly hone her skills - Mukherjee was accompanied by her all-sacrificing mother who came to live with her and instilled the fuel to fan her dreams. Joining the Soumyadeep Roy Poulomi Ghatak Table Tennis Academy nearly 7 years back, worked like magic for Sutirtha.
Coming under the wings of Soumyadeep Roy, who is currently the Chief National Coach, Sutirtha's game and mindset radically changed. In fact, post-2016, Roy was the one to tow Mukherjee out and light the fire in her to dream of playing top-level international tournaments. Over the past few years, the changes have shown and brought results.
In the 2019 Ultimate Table Tennis Championships, Sutirtha played for U-Mumba and won all six of her matches, including stupendous victories over Germany's Patrissa Solja and Taipei's Cheng I-Ching. Continuing with her dashing form that has helped her scale up the rankings and into the top 100, Mukherjee, aided by her short pimple rubber and attacking game, even defeated Bernadette Szocs at the 2020 ITTF World Team Qualification Tournament, who was then a World No. 19 player.
In fact, Mukherjee sealed her spot for the Tokyo Olympics by defeating the Indian No. 1 women's paddler, Manika Batra at the Asian Olympic Qualification tournament in Doha. These wins have given Sutirtha the much-needed confidence to put up a brave front at the Tokyo Games.
Being exposed to foreign coaches, players and international competitions, Sutirtha has learned a lot from it and has actively implemented her learnings in her game. For someone who played table tennis because it brought her the mementos and trophies and medals initially, the dream has grown much bigger now and Sutirtha, a fan of badminton and cricket as well, now takes her passion seriously and has every intention of doing well in it.
Battling past hardships, Sutirtha Mukherjee resurges
In 2015, Mukherjee was a strong favourite to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games - her form was peaking, too. Back then, she was one of the country's most-hailed players and a lot of expectations were pinned on this girl from Naihati before tragedy struck. Being suspended for a year by the National Table Tennis Federation for allegedly committing an age-fraud offence, Mukherjee's hopes of making it to Rio were rudely crushed, forcing her into a shell.
The feeling of being so close yet being so far is perhaps one of the most excruciating things a person has to experience in their lives and Mukherjee's moment came in 2015-16 and it was an agonising period for the talented paddler.
Pausing a little before replying, Sutirtha slowly opened up, "It was one of the most difficult phases of my life. I could not look at the TV or watch any of the matches. On countless occasions, I felt like dropping it all. It was a very painful period for me but thankfully, luckily, I had the greatest support system in the form of my parents, friends and coaches," she recalls.
Taking in a breath, Sutirtha carried on, "You know, at one point during that phase, I made up my mind that I must play the next Olympics and I drilled that into my mind - that I will do whatever it takes to qualify for the Tokyo Games. I will do my best to get there."
Spurred on by her mother who would always motivate her and pull her out of the worst-kind of slumps, Sutirtha, her voice filling with gratitude mentions, "I owe all of this to my mother. She sacrificed everything for me. She is the reason I am here today. I want to make them proud and fulfill all their dreams. The Olympics will help me greatly in improving my rankings," Mukherjee states with conviction.
Picking up the bat soon after, Mukherjee started training again with sheer hard work and began climbing the rungs to success. From being the World No. 502, Sutirtha has jumped up the list quite impressively and is now the World No. 95 and the road ahead, will surely see her bettering this rank, in no time.
Behind the scenes of Sutirtha Mukherjee's Tokyo ticket
Table tennis is an extremely active sport, even though its 'miniature' outlook might prove to be deceptive. In reality, table tennis demands as much fitness as regular lawn tennis or any other sport demands. For Sutirtha Mukherjee, a bothersome constraint has been her obstacles with achieving a high level of fitness to be able to compete at par with her opponents at the international level.
Recognising this drawback, Mukherjee along with her team of coaches led by Soumyadeep Roy, began charting out a plan to combat the fitness issues and shape up before the Tokyo Olympics. Mukherjee, who gains a lot of strength from her Arjuna awardee coach, has been putting in the hours doing fitness training with Argha Mazumder, the Fitness trainer of Mohun Bagan and has made a lot of pleasant improvements.
Hoisting Sutirtha to this spot has taken the dedication and support of many others as well - who believed in the talent of the Naihati girl and invested in her dream to play at the Olympics. "For the last 2-3 years, I've been playing for Haryana," Mukherjee says, "they have been extremely helpful and accepting towards me. I must thank Mr. MP Singh who is the Secretary and Deputy CM Dushyant Chautala who supported me always," she says.
Other than Haryana's encouragement, Sutirtha worked day in and day out with her coaches and fitness trainers and sports psychologists to firm herself up and get ready for the big stages. For someone who chanced upon table tennis, grew to love it and now cannot imagine a day without it, Sutirtha is an inspiration - her hard work, passion and grit shows and all of it has rolled together to propel her to the Tokyo Olympics.