Flashback to the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Manika Batra is headed to the Gold Coast. She is confident and well-prepared. The Delhi girl has promised her coach that she will bring home a medal. She is leading the women's team. It starts off well for her. The India women's team is in the final, expectedly. But to beat giants Singapore is not expected. Singapore have the World No 4 Feng Tianwei, whose two singles are crucial, and so are Batra's. The first match is between Tianwei and Batra. The Indian is down 1-2, but then she turns it around in a manner suited to a typical Bollywood hero. She does the unthinkable and beats the World No 4. It sets the tone.
"My confidence during the CWG was extremely high. It was constantly revolving in my mind that I have to win the medal. I was really positive during the CWG and not a single negative thought entered my mind." Image courtesy Reuters
She comes back to overpower Zhou Yihan in the fourth match to win India's first ever women's team gold. Five days later, she bags women's doubles silver with Mouma Das. Is there a way to stop Batra? Everyone ponders. The next day, she creates history again, beating two Singapore girls on the trot (three overall in space of two days) including the World No 4 again to clinch India's first ever medal in women's singles at the CWG, making it special with a gold. She is already Indian table tennis' poster girl by now. She takes her medal tally to four with a bronze in mixed doubles with Sathiyan Gnanasekaran next day. She leaves Gold Coast with the most medals by a single Indian at the Games, and her opponents befuddled with her unique style of play.
The eleven days at the Gold Coast are a story of tremendous self-belief and perfect execution. A star is born.
Sport has the power to change lives. It changed Batra's in those eleven days. People started recognising her (she is happier because people have started recognising the sport). She became the new poster girl of table tennis. There were reams written about her achievements. Endorsements started flowing in.
"When I got out, people ask me 'Oh! You are Manika Batra?' It's a good feeling that people are recognising me," Manika beams. "More than me, my mom gets happy when people come and take a selfie with me. So it's an amazing feeling."
"My confidence during the CWG was extremely high, I don't know how (smiles)," recalls Batra. "But it was constantly revolving in my mind that I have to win the medal. I was really positive during the CWG and not a single negative thought entered my mind. And because of that, I brought home the medals."
Those eleven days at the Gold Coast are a dream...Whoosh...
Fast-forward to the 2018 Asian Games: Blank
Another big game. Another big stage. Dust off the past from the mind. It's time for a new start for Batra.
Expectations have unsurprisingly risen after the CWG heroics but the Asian Games are a different beast with the Asian powerhouses like China, Japan, Korea, Chinese-Taipei participating. And the Delhi girl is not getting too far ahead of her.
"Obviously (the goal is) to win a medal. But there will be some really good players participating. I am practising hard with my coach. My goal is to reach till quarterfinals, because no (Indian woman) has reached that stage and at the Asiad, playing a quarter-final or semi-final is also a big thing. So my aim is to reach the quarters and semis," Batra says.
The 23-year-old paddler has had a decent run this year starting with the CWG. She then won the Ultimate Table Tennis title with Dabang Smashers and a month later, lifted the National Ranking (North Zone) title before reaching the Round of 32 at the Australian Open Platinum series.
However, this was punctuated by a blip at the World Team Championships in Sweden. Batra won just three out of her 10 singles matches as the women's team finished 17th. With just around a 10-day gap between the CWG and World Championships, there was very little preparation time. Also, the CWG performance had brought about a little bit of distraction.
"After CWG, when I came back home, I got a really good reception. I got a lot of media coverage, which is a good thing because table tennis hadn't got so much media coverage earlier," Batra explains. "I didn't get time to practice, as a matter of fact none of us did. There was very little time before the World Championships so we were not well prepared and everyone's focus had blurred a bit, but we gave our best."
The fatigue factor had also taken its toll.
"She was very tired, mentally and physically with continuous matches going on," explains Batra's coach Sandeep Gupta. "She had traversed a long road " first there were three Pro Tours, then the CWG camp, then Commonwealth Games and then the World Championships, so the last three months were long, she was tired."
While the World Championships was a disappointment, there were crucial lessons learnt.
"I kept just one thing in mind while I was coming back from the World Championships " I have to brush off the fact which I was keeping in my mind that I had won medals at the CWG. And I have to behave normally. I am nothing right now, it's just the beginning and if I think the same way at the Asiad, I will be able to play well," she says.
Batra dismissed the distractions quickly with the help of her support system which has constantly kept her motivated.
"My coach (Sandeep Gupta) said it's just a beginning and there are a lot of achievements left. Obviously, it was my dream to win at the Commonwealth Games but he said you have to get all of this out of the mind and practice hard. You have to work harder it won't suffice in this so you have to change yourself. And my mom, just like my coach, kept motivating me to work harder and achieve a lot further."
As a new challenge beckons in Jakarta, Batra is looking to hit the refresh button.
"I will be starting afresh. It's a new tournament so everything will be new. If I think about the past then it will enter my mind that I have brought home the medals and have defeated these players which I don't want to bring so I have to have a fresh new start at the Asian Games."
At the CWG, the women's team exceeded all expectations by beating Singapore in the final. However, at the Asiad, it's going to be really difficult. They will face stiff competition right from the start, there will be no breathing space. In a best of five, all the three team members will have to be at their best on the day. Batra, by default, will have to win her two singles rubbers (which she will have to definitely play unless the think-tank has some other ideas). The expectations have increased so has the pressure. And to deal with it, an uncluttered and positive mind will be the key.
"I will just go in with a positive mindset and play every match confidently. I would like to keep the same mindset as I had before the CWG."
It was Batra's unique style of play with different rubbers that surprised everyone at the CWG. Table tennis is a skill-heavy game and a lot of time goes into analysing players' skill. With the world taking notice of India's rise in table tennis, after the CWG, the opponents would have studied Batra's game. To counter that Batra is trying out new things to stay unpredictable.
The Asians are fast so Batra is concentrating more on her fitness to increase her speed, and working on her attack, especially the forehand attack which is weak. The 23-year-old is also working on increasing the role of spin in her backhand attack when she switches over during counter attack to stay deceptive. Also, the key to beating top players is not to get intimidated.
"I have to think that they are normal. I don't have to get that ranking part in my mind," Batra explains. "Because when someone like Ding Ning (World No 7) or Chen Meng (World No 3) is your opponent, it comes to our mind that it's Chen Meng and Ding Ning and we cannot win against them. If we don't bring that thing in mind, we can win. In the World Championships, they were scared of us. We had a match against them and they were building an entire strategy of how to play against us. So it felt good."
In the last one month, Batra has jumped 24 places from 81 to 57 in the latest rankings (August). She has been trying to employ her new skills in the domestic tournaments and the UTT. With no big tournament before the Asiad, she's got decent preparation time and has been working with Gupta in the China camp. A major boost for the Delhi paddler will be the fact that her long-distance messenger and advisor at the CWG " Gupta " will be beside her in Jakarta. All the ingredients are there, it will all depend on how you cook.
"I am excited, if I achieve something (a medal) at the Asian Games then it will be history for India and myself," Batra beams.
History or not, the Asian Games will be a big test and a massive learning curve for the 23-year-old.
"Whatever we gain from this is going to be a plus. For our goal, we are neither limiting ourselves nor demoralising. We will battle with all our capacity," Gupta signs off.