Manika must overcome CWG 2022 ‘horror’; Sharath, Sathiyan all set to bring more laurels

Star paddler Manika Batra had reached Birmingham as a serious gold medal contender but 2022 Commonwealth Games was like a never-ending ‘horror show’ for her as she returned empty-handed despite featuring in four disciplines.

Having won the women’s team gold, a mixed doubles bronze with G. Sathiyan and India’s first-ever gold in the women’s table tennis singles at the 2018 CWG in Gold Coast, Manika had a lot to prove in this edition, but she failed to live up to the expectations and lost all four events she was competing in the quarterfinals.

The women’s team lost to Malaysia 3-2 in the quarterfinals at Birmingham 2022. After which, she along with Sathiyan lost to another Malaysian pair of Javen Choong and Kara Lyne 2-3 in the quarterfinals. On the same day, she failed to defend her singles title, losing in four straight sets to Singapore’s Jian Zeng. A similar fate unfolded for Manika as she along with Divya Chitale were defeated by Charlotte Carey and Anna Hursey of Wales 1-3 in yet another quarterfinal.

In an emotional post on Instagram, the 27-year old apologised to the country for her failure to win a medal in Birmingham.

“I am sorry to my country and to its people who were hoping and cheering for me. At this CWG I could only make it till the quarter-finals and yes, I am very upset. I am in tears every morning from the day I lost that match. But I promise I will come out of this stronger and will work hard each and every day with the same hunger,” wrote Batra.

The Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna awardee also thanked her supporters.

”Like they say — ‘You win some, you lose some’. But in my case it’s always — ‘You win some, you learn some’. Thank you everyone from the bottom of my heart for always being there and always supporting me in my tough times too,” she said.

There could be multiple reasons behind Manika’s ordinary outing at CWG 2022. But the biggest reason seems to be her tussle with the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI), which might have affected her mentally.

Generally, athletes prevent themselves from getting involved in off-field controversies, especially during the peak of his/her career. But, it wasn’t the case for Manika, who was involved in a tussle with TTFI right after the conclusion of the Tokyo Olympics.

Competing in her second successive Olympics, Manika created a sensation as she became the first Indian player to reach the third round at Tokyo 2020. However, soon after, TTFI decided to issue a show-cause notice to Manika for refusing coach Soumyadeep Roy’s assistance for her singles matches in Tokyo.

After her personal coach Sanmay Paranjape wasn’t allowed Field of Play (FOP) access at the Games venue, Manika turned down the prospect of Roy being present in her corner for singles matches. She played all her singles matches without a coach by her side and lost in the third round. For her mixed doubles matches along with Sharath Kamal, however, Roy was present.

Saying that she was “subjected to undue pressure and ill treatment” which put her into “huge mental agony”, Manika approached the Delhi High Court against TTFI in September.

After a few months, the court finally gave the decision in the athlete’s favour. The star paddler won the case but all the off-field controversies didn’t help her in terms of preparations for CWG 2022. She wasn’t at her best in Birmingham, which eventually resulted in her medal-less campaign.

Going by her career achievement, Manika certainly has the mental toughness to overcome the challenges and setbacks. It will be interesting to see her performance in the next few tournaments because there is much time for the 2024 Paris Olympics, where the competition will be even tougher.

Manika is one of the top athletes of the country and expectations will be high from her in Paris. But for that, she needs to leave her CWG 2022’s ‘horror show’ behind, sort out the off-field issues and make a roaring comeback. She might have to go back to the basics, start from scratch and train well, which could eventually help her achieve her biggest goal — an Olympic medal.

Apart from Manika, India had high expectations from its veteran table tennis star, Achanta Sharath Kamal after he came back from CWG 2022 with flying colours.

In Birmingham, the 40-year old won a total of four medals, including three gold. Sharath was in brilliant form, playing his role as India defended the men’s team gold. But the medals that were more satisfying were the men’s singles gold and the one in mixed doubles in the company of youngster Sreeja Akula.

Sharath turned the clock back by 16 years to win the singles gold medal beating Liam Pitchford of England, ranked 20th in the world, 4-1. The most-commendable thing was his fitness level as he played six matches daily on most of the days at CWG 2022, and his victory in the singles gives an insight into his physical and mental strength that makes one excel in such a brutal schedule.

The mixed doubles gold medal was an even better tribute to the adaptability of the veteran player who could forge a successful partnership with someone 16 years younger than him, and that too after training with Sreeja Akula for 2-3 days.

Young Sreeja was another gain for Indian table tennis as she showed great composure and grit to come back and play mixed doubles after suffering two heartbreak defeats in singles. If she continues the good work, the youngster could be a medal prospect for the country at the Paris Olympics.

Another ace paddler Sathiyan Gnanasekaran also had a good outing at CWG 2022. Sathiyan won the men’s singles bronze along with gold in the men’s team event and silver with Sharath in men’s doubles. The 29-year old has been one of the most consistent players and medal winners for India in the last few years. So, naturally, expectations will be very high from him in Paris. The likes of Harmeet Desai, Sanil Shetty also made their presence felt especially in team events and need to continue the good work.

In the women’s section, Sreeja, Reeth Rishya, Diya Chitale will need to take their game to the next level, in order to become medal contenders at big events.

Overall, the table tennis contingent, which had bagged eight medals in 2018 Gold Coast, could manage only five medals in Birmingham 2022. Para-TT stars Bhavina Patel and Sonal Patel contributed gold and bronze to make the tally look healthier. Bhavina showed that she is one of the best in her category in the world with easy wins in the entire tournament.

So, most Indian paddlers will have to keep honing their skills, upgrade themselves and prepare well for the upcoming challenges including the Paris Olympics, to bring more laurels for the country.

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