By Avinash Kr Atish
New Delhi, Jan 29 (IANS): Star Indian table tennis player Manika Batra, who had a difficult last year, both on court and off-court, is slowing but steadily finding her mojo once again, which is a good sign for Indian sports.
Putting her 2022 Commonwealth Games 'horror show' behind, Manika has performed well in the last few tournaments and looks all set for a superb season ahead. On Tuesday, she reached her career-best 33rd position in the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) women's singles world rankings, which came after her brilliant semi-final run at the WTT Contender Doha.
Prior to that, the 27-year old claimed a historic bronze medal for India at the Asian Cup in Bangkok in November. However, before this superb show, Manika had a very tough last year, in which she made the semi-final of just one event and quarter-finals of two tournaments, including the Commonwealth Games 2022.
Start of the tough time
It all began at the Olympic Games, where as a player, 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 her 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.
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.
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.
'Horror show' at CWG 2022
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 reached Birmingham as a serious gold medal contender but the paddler failed to live up to the expectations and lost all four events she was competing in the quarterfinals.
There could be multiple reasons behind Batra's ordinary outing at CWG 2022. But the biggest reason at that time seemed to be her tussle with the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI), which might have affected her mentally. She wasn't at her best in Birmingham, which eventually resulted in her medal-less campaign.
After the event, the Indian paddler in an emotional post on Instagram apologised to the country for her failure to win a medal in Birmingham, but she was also determined to come back stronger.
"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 comeback and road ahead
Going by her career achievements, the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna awardee Manika certainly had that mental toughness to overcome the challenges and setbacks and she did that by gradually improving her performances in tournaments after tournaments.
After CWG, Manika worked with the coach on her game and fitness but the comeback wasn't easy. Top seed Batra lost to Sutirtha Mukherjee in the women's table tennis semifinals of the 36th National Games in September.
However, a big tournament like the Asian Cup in Bangkok in November last year, changed things drastically for her. With her bronze at the Asian Cup, she became the first Indian woman table tennis player to win a medal at the continental event and only the second Indian to achieve the feat after Chetan Baboor, who won a silver in 1997 and a bronze in 2000.
The historic medal gave her a booster shot of confidence and Batra has been on rise since then, attaining her career-best singles ranking recently.
There are many big events like World Table Tennis Championships, Asian games and others, where Indians fans would wish to see Manika produce impressive performances, gain that momentum and peak at the right time for the all-important Paris Olympics in 2024.
Meghna Ahlawat new TTFI chief
In 2022, the Delhi High Court had suspended TTFI in February and appointed a Committee of Administrators (CoA) to take over its functioning. The judgement came after Manika Batra petitioned the court alleging match-fixing against the national coach during Tokyo Olympics qualifiers.
She contended that the then national coach Soumyadeep Roy had asked her to concede a match against compatriot Sutirtha Mukherjee -- she was also training at his academy.
The court appointed a three-member committee to look into the allegations.
Meghna Ahlawat was then elected president of the federation with former stalwart Kamlesh Mehta elected secretary general. Patel Nagender Reddy was elected treasurer.
Ahlawat, who is the wife of Haryana Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala, contested against Gujarat home minister Harsh Sanghvi. Dushyant Chautala was the previous TTFI president.
The elections came as a huge relief as the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Executive Committee had proposed the suspension of TTFI.