Star paddler Manika Batra and experienced pro Sutirtha Mukherjee fought hard for India but the women’s team fell agonisingly short of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics 2020. The Indian women’s team, on Friday, lost 2-3 to World No. 8 Romania in the round of 16 of the Tokyo 2020 table tennis team qualifying tournament in Gondomar, Portugal.
In the first rubber, Ayhika and Sutirtha fought hard but failed to get India off to a perfect start. The odds were never in their favour but a spirited show from the Mukherjee duo meant that Samara and Monteiro had to dig in to secure the win. The Indians took home the first game and were leading 2-1 at one point. But, eventually, the Romanian pair made their experience count to beat Ayhika and Sutirtha 10-12, 12-10, 7-11, 11-5, 11-6.
In the second rubber, Batra was up against Romania’s best player, World No. 19 Bernadette Szocs. The game was never going to be easy but the quadruple gold medallist at the 2018 Commonwealth Games made things more difficult for her by making unforced errors and missing a couple of easy smashes.
Bernadette got an early lead in the first game and despite a late surge from Batra, managed to hold on to it and win 11-7. In the second game though, Batra, who had starred in India’s first round victory over Sweden on Wednesday, gradually started finding her groove. Trailing by three points at one point, the Indian paddler clinched four consecutive points to make it 9-8 in her favour and then went on to level the rubber at 1-1.
Having gained the momentum, Batra seemed unstoppable as she used her pimple rubbers to maximum impact and went on to win the next two games to seal the rubber. She eventually beat Bernadette 7-11, 12-10, 11-9, 11-7 in a thrilling encounter.
Samara, then, took charge and showed just why she is among the top paddlers in the world. Ayhika tried hard but could not bring it home losing, 10-12, 11-5, 2-11, 7-11. Just when it seemed all could be over, Sutirtha Mukherjee kept India’s hopes alive with an unprecedented win in the fourth rubber. The experienced player, who hails from Bengal, took on Szocs and how!
In a thrilling encounter, Sutirtha showed tremendous grit and determination to win the match 3-2 (8-11, 11-7, 11-9, 3-11, 11-4) and bring India back in the tie.
The onus was on Batra, India’s best paddler — a shot at glory. What could have been the first instance of the Indian women’s team qualifying for Olympics, however, turned out to be a disappointing affair; as the young Batra struggled to keep her composure. The 24-year-old Delhi girl ended up losing 8-11, 4-11, 11-3, 2-11 to Daniela Monteiro
A lot was expected from Batra and while the blame cannot be entirely put on her, she faltered at the final stage. Why the impressive Archana Kamath Girish did not play, especially after her heroics in the first round, is also one of the questions that need to be answered.
The Indian team have been training without a foreign coach for quite a while. Did the absence of someone like a Massimo Costantini in the dugout has no doubt hurt India’s chances? With Costantini, Batra and Co had climbed to heights that were never scaled before. Maybe, an experienced coach is what just India missed?
However, the women’s team’s chances of making the cut for Tokyo 2020 are not over just yet. The eight teams losing in the round of 16 of the main event, one of them being India, enter a new knockout bracket. The winner from this bracket also seals a spot at Tokyo 2020. India have been drawn to play France in the first round of this knockout bracket, a win would set them up with Netherlands or Portugal. Should they manage to progress further, they are likely to meet Republic of Korea, the toughest among the six teams decided for the knockout bracket so far.