Saturday, May 25, 2024

Manika Batra foxes World No.2 Chinese with smart switch-hit to score upset win

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With two months to go for the Paris Olympics, Manika Batra pulled a stunning win out of the hat, at the Saudi Smash in Jeddah on Monday. She beat Chinese World No 2 Wang Manyu 3-1 (6-11, 11-5, 11-7, 12-10) for the first time ever in her career, after 5 straight losses to the top opponent including at World’s and Asian Games.

Coming on the heels of eye-popping wins for other paddlers at Asian Games and on the circuit where Indians are regularly nicking some big scalps, there was more good news in store. The mixed doubles pairing of Harmeet Desai and Yashaswini Ghorpade also upset fifth seeds Alvaro Robles and Maria Xiao 11-5, 5-11, 3-11, 11-7, 11-7 to move into the pre-quarters. But Manika’s was a special coup, given how she had narrowly lost twice this year to Wang, the 2021 World Champion.

“It’s come just before the Olympics, so it raises hopes of a medal,” Batra’s coach Aman Balgu ventured. “It’s a big win before the Olympics. It’s a signal to others to not take India lightly in team events with Sreeja (Akula), Manika and Ayhika getting these wins,” said former Olympian Neha Agarwal, adding she was especially delighted with how Batra closed out the match.

The pressure was unbelievable in the fourth game, as she went from leading 8-5 to dropping 5 points in a row, and trailing 8-10. Manika, who’s been on the circuit for a good 12-13 years now, has come close to these big wins, but not converted. Another crunch moment loomed. It could’ve gone down as another forgettable narrow miss. But she composed herself.

At 11-10, Manika loosened her wrist on the grip. And did what Neha says her compatriot has been unfailingly trained to practice since they were kids, for 10 minutes every day even while watching TV: she twiddled, rotating the racket to flip backhand-forehand rubbers. It was muscle memory summoned for the clutch.

“Manika has been around for years, and her long pimple isn’t exactly a surprise. Everybody knows her game. But crucially at 11-10, she correctly anticipated that Wang would turn, and she twiddled, sending it on her forehand. It was superbly gutsy and fooled the Chinese completely,” Neha would chortle.

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Manika is known to twiddle-rotate and switch grips quickly, but she always follows it with a hard hit. On Monday at Jeddah, Manika added a coolly wicked twist, and played pure placement in her blocked winner. “To do something like this at 11-10, knowing if the twiddle had gone wrong, and Wang hadn’t turned, she took a big risk,” Neha explained. Baglu would credit her composure. “The reason she’s beating more Asians this year is because she can play calm and controlled. But when needed like today, she can go aggressive with her attack. The combination is helping,” he said.

Manika’s long pimple rubber is often rendered ineffective over 5 games, as opponents get time to get used to her style in this format. “It can be scary to twiddle against the top Chinese, because they counter well. Plus, you don’t want to go into a decider with the Chinese. They are masters of best-of-5. It was a do-or-die at 11-10,” Neha explained.

The Chinese are known to line up sparring opponents in training that mimic all expected players, and Neha reckons they weren’t unprepared for Batra. “They all know her game, but the millisecond grip twiddle at that juncture was unexpected,” she says.

For someone who came to prominence at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the 2022 edition was a disaster. Batra faced the lowest of form lows which continued till the Asiad. And she was considered washed-up, as Sreeja Akula superseded the 28-year-old in rankings.

“She’s gone through many ups and downs and been under a lot of pressure. Coach changes were a struggle, but she’s found stability now,” Neha says. The last year saw her settle her coaching base, find teammates she enjoyed sparring and raising her game with, and crucially, improve the first ball attack from her forehand – a career long weakness. The forehand now is greatly improved, employed on counters, when playing from near the table and further behind, in closing out rallies.

Neha reckons Manika has always been a smart cookie in strategies and decision making in 8, 9, deuce situations. But it’s her fearlessness that’s priceless. “One thing about Manika is she’s not scared of Chinese, Japanese or any reputation. No respecting rivals too much, and she believes ‘Haan ok, they maybe whoever, but I’m the best’. But wohi attitude chaiye na! When we played in my day, we would think Oh god, no, it’s Chinese, how will we win? She never thought like that.

Indian women in TT need that attitude. It’s what will give us the edge in team events. Exciting days ahead,” Neha said.

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