Tokyo Olympics: Manika Batra and the curious case of the missing coach
Devoid of a coach by her side, Manika Batra's dream run at the Tokyo Olympics screeched to a halt and niggled obvious questions about this glaring absence.
With the number of cheers that India's top female table tennis star Manika Batra lured with her victories perhaps that many, if not more, questions were raised when the Chief National Coach was nowhere to be found on the sidelines during her high-octane matches. The World No. 62 scripted history at the Tokyo Olympics, pretty single-handedly and made a dash till the pre-quarters of the Women's Singles event before Austrian World No. 17 paddler Sofia Polcanova showed Batra the door, winning 4-0.
It was far from a cakewalk for Manika Batra to make it till the place she did - becoming the first Indian woman paddler to win a match at the Olympics after an embarrassingly long hiatus of 29 years. Adding her name to the history books, the 26-year-old table tennis personality became the very first Indian to make it till the pre-quarters stages of an Olympics. Veteran Achanta Sharath Kamal soon joined to give her company in this party but he was only second to this frontrunner.
In all 3 of the matches that Manika Batra featured in at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in the Japanese capital, an absence was glaringly felt as Soumyadeep Roy, the Chief National Coach of India was missing from the sidelines. In all 3 matches, Manika did not have any coaching support to fall back on - as there was nobody to talk to in the ample time-outs and game intervals. The 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist had to bank on herself to improvise, react and remain pumped to convert points.
'Coach, coach everywhere, no timely advice to be found?'
Controversy can never be far away when it comes to the Indian contingent and likewise, the table tennis camp got restless after Manika Batra refused to take the help of Soumyadeep Roy during her first round match against Great Britain's Tin-Tin Ho.
The waters are definitely muddy here and we need to hold our breath and wade into it - to get to the bottom of this matter. Raising a lot of eyebrows, Manika Batra had pushed for flying in her personal coach, Sanmay Paranjape, with whom she trains at the India Khelega Centre in Pune. Even though she got the heads-up and Paranjape came along to Tokyo, Batra could not avail him for on-court coaching during the matches as his accreditation was not approved given that Roy was already present.
Making the situation all too fishy and glaring, Manika Batra found herself in more controversy after she passed up the opportunity of having Soumyadeep Roy on the sides - a service he has been offering most passionately to the trio of Sutirtha Mukherjee, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and the veteran Achanta Sharath Kamal.
"After her request for on-court access for her personal coach was denied, she refused to be coached by our national coach. I had to intervene in the matter but she also refused me to take Roy's advice during the match," team leader KP Singh told PTI.
The first match may have been a breeze for Manika Batra against the lower-ranked Tin-Tin Ho but into the Round of 64, Batra was up against World No. 32 Margaryta Pesotska, and this was no easy job to handle. Pesotska, a 4-time Olympic qualifier, brought her experience to the table and won the first two games in a rush while Manika kept looking towards the gallery where a masked-up Sanmay Paranjape sat, helpless towards his pupil. Needing to bring out the big guns and depending entirely on her own mettle, Manika managed to play the crunch points with finesse and somehow scrambled to the finish line, 4-3, with Lady Luck siding her from a distance, too.
However, there was no such divine intervention or coach intervention to help Manika Batra out of danger as a relentless World No. 17 Sofia Polcanova won in straight games and served a very humbling second game where Batra only managed to get 2 points on the board. Overall, Batra looked flustered - there was no support by her side as none of the coaches - neither Paranjape or Soumyadeep were available for on-court access for the World No. 62 to be rescued in the precious timeouts. Of course, it was to come unwinding sooner or later and it happened in a manner of 27 minutes as Polcanova attacked the Batra forehand to sail into the quarters, 4-0.
'And that has made all the difference' - the coaching perks
Not to indulge too much in a Frostian metaphor but perhaps Manika Batra's not having her coach by her side during any of her Tokyo Olympics matches did make the difference. The golden girl from the Commonwealth Games was very well on the path of history-making success and her shine could have been given that extra polish had she had her coach guiding her, one is forced to assume.
The fact that coaching mid-match can do wonders was perfectly displayed in the first round match of West Bengal's Sutirtha Mukherjee who came out of nowhere to win her debut match against Sweden's Linda Bergström. Visibly flustered and out-of-sorts during many points of the match, Sutirtha had Soumyadeep rousing her on and giving her pointers - in Bengali, the mother tongue they share and that helped the World No. 98 do the impossible. Sutirtha came out on top of the 7 game thriller, egged on by a vastly invested Soumyadeep and the victory was notched.
The importance of on-court coaching in table tennis
To delve deeper into this, The Bridge got in touch with two young paddlers - Ayhika Mukherjee and Akankshya Bhuyan to provide their insights about the matter at hand. While Ayhika has tasted international success by being a part of the gold-medal winning table tennis women's team at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Akankshya has been a regular face at National level tournaments.
"We need the help of the coach a lot during the crucial points of the match. It feels reassuring to just take a look and find the validation about where to serve, how to place the shot...it gives a big boost of confidence," the 22-year-old Mukherjee says.
"Then again, it is us at the table - we will be the ones to play and execute the points, the coach can only show us the path," she points out. Candidly confessing her reliance on her coach, Shouvik Roy and talking about her rapport with him which helps them communicate during do-or-die matches, Ayhika couldn't help pointing out how Soumyadeep stepped in to guide Sutirtha in her first round encounter against Bergström.
"In the middle of a match, if I look back and see that nobody is there - my morale automatically falls down," Ayhika says, opening up on the psychological aspect. Mukherjee, who has gone on to defeat a lot of high-ranked players repeatedly stresses how it was her coach who had pulled her out of those tense situations and helped her convert the wins.
Meanwhile, disappointed after Manika's third round loss, Akankshya asked pointedly while explaining, "There are things that the person who is watching the match notices and the person playing the match cannot spot. Even though her (Manika's) own coach was sitting in the gallery, she could have easily taken the help of the Chief Indian coach, right?"
Still in the dark, like most of us, Akankshya continues, "Even though she spent the whole match looking at Sanmay, it shouldn't be like that Manika didn't have a helping hand. When Manika goes to collect herself after every game, there should be at least someone to guide her, tell her that this shouldn't happen… it probably wouldn't be different from what Sanmay would say. She could have taken the help...I wonder why she didn't."
Moreover, this wasn't any ordinary stage we are talking about - this is the stage of the Olympics and if given the chance, all help should be availed to secure victory - that's the single-most important thumb rule to abide by.
"There are some things you should think from the third person's perspective. The third person might notice things which would miss your eye while playing. If pointed out, you can adjust your game likewise and flip the match. Having a coach by your side has never done anything bad…I don't see why she didn't take the help when players like Sathiyan and Sharath did..especially on the Olympic platform," Akankshya wonders.
Coach or no coach, Manika Batra's Tokyo Olympics will be etched in the annals of history permanently. The 26-year-old who had mentioned that she wanted to "shock" her opponents at the Olympics, stuck to her word as she will return from the Games after creating history by becoming the very first pre quarter-finalist at the quadrennial Games.