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Table Tennis

Sreeja Akula's spectacular rise challenges Manika Batra's top spot

World no. 40 Sreeja Akula, with two international titles to her credit, is well poised to topple out of form Manika Batra as India's number one.

Sreeja Akulas spectacular rise challenges Manika Batras top spot

Sreeja Akula and Manika Batra are India's top ranked women's singles players. 


Sudipta Biswas

Published: 30 March 2024 11:42 AM GMT

Sreeja Akula has been in phenomenal form and reaping the benefits of showing other-worldly consistency for an Indian paddler, in the international arena.

Earlier this week, Sreeja rose to her career-high world ranking of 40 to emerge as India's number two behind Manika Batra, the country's number-one women's singles player since 2018.

Sreeja, 25, is now well in contention to topple Manika from her position in the ongoing season, with her already claiming two international titles and looking well-poised for more titles this year.

The Hyderabadi paddler's first moment of reckoning came in 2022 when she won the Commonwealth Games mixed doubles gold in partnership with the poster boy of Indian table tennis, Achanta Sharath Kamal. But Sreeja was still a year behind to bring out her best and an eerie consistency.

Her moment of prominence came in January this year when she made a solid start by winning the WTT Feeder Corpus Christi in Texas, USA, for her maiden international crown.

On her way to the title, the Indian paddler, who was ranked 94th at the time, displayed her newly found form and zeal to upset top seed and world no. 34 Amy Wang in a nail-biting quarterfinal clash, and world no. 31 Lily Zhang in the final in three straight games.

She would continue her magnificent form with yet another commendable performance, as she made a quarterfinal finish at the WTT Star Contender Goa.

Sreeja's best performance came in the pre-quarterfinal, where she showcased sublime shots on both sides of the table to stun the then world no. 30 Hana Goda of Egypt, now ranked 28th, 3-0 (11-8 11-6 14-12) in straight games to progress to the quarterfinal.

This performance helped her break into the top 50 for the first time from the zone of the 90s in February.

On the contrary, Manika, in a swing of fortune, succumbed to world no. 16 Xiaoxin Yang in the pre-quarterfinal at the event.

Producing yet another stunning result at the World Table Tennis Team Championships in Busan last month, Sreeja held off a brave challenge from Chinese superstar Wang Yidi, currently ranked third in the world.

Delivering a sizzling performance, Sreeja defeated Yidi in three straight games. Despite India losing the nail-biting contest 2-3, with Manika losing both her matches, Sreeja made a huge statement by demonstrating her rise in the big league.

Sreeja's significant role in India's pre-quarterfinal finish at the event helped the national women's team secure a place in the Olympics in Paris for the first time.

Though Manika recovered from her defeats against China in the group-stage ties against Hungary, Uzbekistan, and Spain, she could not carry on the momentum further.

Last week, Sreeja won her second international title at the WTT Feeder Beirut II, beating world no. 36 Suh Hyo Won of Korea and Liu Hsing-Yin en route.

Following her dominating performances in Lebanon, Sreeja made a seven-place jump to rise to 40, enabling her to knock at Manika's top position.

With Sreeja coming painfully close to toppling Manika from her number one India rank, the star paddler found herself in a catch-22 situation.

Manika, who has been India's number one women's singles player since February 2018 achieved on the back of her two gold and as many bronze winning displays at the Commonwealth Games, and one more bronze in the Asian Games, needs to ramp up her game and shun inconsistency to improve her ranking to remain on top of the India rankings.

The poster girl of Indian women's table tennis for six years, Manika has been struggling to regain her mojo since she created history at the Asian Games in Hangzhou in 2023 becoming the first Indian singles player to reach the quarterfinals.

As both Manika and Sreeja are set to represent India at the ITTF World Cup in Macao, scheduled for April 15-21, Indian fans must gear up for an exciting battle.

For Manika, the tournament is coming as a make-or-break situation. Manika, who last won a medal - a silver - at the WTT Star Contender Goa in 2022, needs to put up a better show than Sreeja at the event - at least a few wins - to save herself from being displaced from the number uno position.

The early exit would mean losing a great chunk of points for Manika as her points gained from 2023 will expire on May 28.

For Sreeja, however, there is no such compulsion as she has earned a greater amount of points this year, and these points strengthened her position in the rankings.

In the ongoing WTT Champions in Incheon, Manika made a first-round exit. Despite winning the opening game, she lost to world no. 6 Hina Hayata in a gruelling five-gamer. It made things harder for her.

Though she will play more tournaments in the coming months and have a chance to safeguard her position, this performance at the WTT Champions will further wreak havoc on her confidence.

Manika first entered the top 50 in February 2022 and achieved a career-high of world no. 31 in November last making it the highest-ever ranking achieved by any Indian women paddler to date. But lately, she has not been in great form, and her ranking has been static for a while now.

And if Manika fails to pull her socks up from now onwards, she will undoubtedly go down the pecking order of the Indian rankings, and Sreeja will benefit from it. Acknowledging her rise, the sports ministry this week also approved Sreeja's proposal to train in Chinese Taipei sparring with top local players as part of her preparations for the Paris Olympics.

But while Sreeja has individual glory to achieve, and that would put her in a strong place to compete in the women's singles event at the Paris Olympics, Manika's poor string of form is a thing to worry for the Indian table tennis fraternity as she is one of the prime choices for India to compete in the Games both in the team and singles events.

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