How Manika Batra Fought Several Challenges At The 2020 Olympic Games In Tokyo

by Sumati Mehrishi - Jul 29, 2021 05:10 PM +05:30 IST
How Manika Batra Fought Several Challenges At The 2020 Olympic Games In Tokyo Manika Batra at Tokyo 2020
  • In the third round of the table tennis finals, Batra's Austrian opponent was being cheered on by her coach, who was present right there in the playing arena.

    But Batra's corner was empty.

India's table tennis player Manika Batra's journey in Tokyo Olympics 2020 ended on 26 July (Monday). She bowed out in the third round of the women's singles contest after losing to Austria's Sofia Polcanova in straight sets — 4-0. The exit was lonely. Tokyo is where she wanted to open an account and sprout another beginning.

After she lost in the third round of the women's single competition, one could see emotion building up in her, eyes wanting to splash it off. She perhaps gulped it along with the upset that led to her forlorn exit from the event.

Here is what roughly happened in the match that flung her out of the Olympic 2020 journey. Polcanova was tested by Batra in the first set. The Austrian initially lost some points to Batra's soaring demeanour towards what seemed would shape to be calculated offence in the following sets. Batra, though, lost this set 8-11.

The second set wrapped up in less than five minutes to halt Batra at 2-11. Polcanova succeeded in finally turning over the pressure on to Batra beginning the latter half of the first set and the entire second.

Polcanova's play of her own strengths — the left in body and on the table — would throw a challenge to Batra during those very phases of the match when she would want to crawl back. The forehand that had played a role in upsetting world number 32 in round two, would remain largely waiting against Polcanova.

To many who watched her previous match, it seemed like Batra was laying small point-seeds of a good fight and a self-constructed (even though eventful) victory — during the first set against Polcanova. Batra had whipped a spectacular upset against her opponent from Ukraine in the previous round.

Batra doesn't like to lose points to forehands that stun — as evident in her reactions during the matches. Unfortunately, Polcanova had exactly those stunning ones and more to offer.

Polcanova came across like a calm figure of intelligent patience and immense mental strength. Not a sign of remorse on the face even in points lost. Just an assured comeback by the Austrian. This very trait would become a threat to Batra.

It was as if Polcanova was studying Batra before clawing away the contest forever in their match. She won the first set by first climbing up to finally sidestep Batra's own oscillation between occasional control and consistent signs of something... something missing.

Polcanova was superior in control, and visibly more creative with variations on the table during the third and the concluding sets. And then there were words and a voice guiding her. These were from the Austrian coach.

He sat with the mask on — as the protocol requires. His positive
aggression, those celebratory gestures of the fist, and other animated responses, passed on the energies to Polcanova during moments when she seemed to give away points.

Batra's corner looked lonely. Severely blank. There was no coach at the corner. There was no one speaking to her through a mask, or offering her those words that can flip or turn over or toss around a game that needs crawling up. She was seen looking towards the stands now and then — during low or high. Who was at the stands?

Her coach, perhaps. Yes, coach.

Sanmay Paranjape — Manika Batra's "personal" coach from Pune. Her coach.

Should his absence from the corner in the competitive area have mattered? To Manika Batra — it did.

Why was he in the stands?

Reportedly, Batra requested that Paranjape's "P (personal) category Games accreditation" be upgraded to allow him ‘venue access’ for "Field of Play (FOP) during her matches in the women’s singles and mixed doubles events." ANI had reported that she asked India’s chef-de-mission BP Baishya to allow the field of play (FOP) access for Paranjape.

It would not work. The accreditation didn't allow her coach the venue access. It didn't even allow him to visit her during pre-Games training sessions. He was reportedly travelling as an ‘extra official’ as reports say.

TOI says in a report: " was clearly indicated and known to both Manika and her coach that his selection for Tokyo has been done in the ‘P’ category. Only those with ‘P-TAP’ (Personal – Training Assist Programme) accreditation can access the venue, besides visiting the athletes’ training halls. All extra officials have been residing in hotels arranged by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) at its own cost."

Several sections of the media have reported that Manika "refused" to let national coach Soumyadeep Roy advise her during the match in her first round after her personal coach Sanmay Paranjape was denied access to the competition area.

As of now, “Manika refused” seems to have emanated into something. Some action. Off the field of play.

Her refusal to have the national coach by her side during matches in Tokyo has not gone down well. This report says that the Table Tennis Federation of India Secretary, General Arun Kumar Banerjee, “has made it clear that Manika Batra’s refusal to have national coach Soumyadeep Roy by her side during matches at the Tokyo Olympics will be taken up for discussion once the contingent returns to India.”

The report adds: “Banerjee said the executive committee will decide on the course of action that needs to be taken since it was unprofessional from Manika to call Soumyadeep, the personal coach of Sutirtha Mukherjee [the other woman member of the table tennis team].”

A report on Aaj Tak website quotes Batra as saying (translation): "Had the coach been there, it would have been good. The way Sutirtha had her coach around. That aspect benefits a lot when you are
heading to a match and someone is advising. I am mentally strong and I
gave my best".

Paranjape is the coach that Batra would find comfort with in the
competitive area. He was at the stands instead — quietly
gesticulating tips over hand instructions. He did what the best he
could — from a distance.

Why was Paranjape important to Batra in Tokyo?

He has been important to her steps towards Tokyo. He has been
part of her journey that led to Tokyo. He has been part of her journey
through the qualification matches and the rank matches.

The pep talk from a coach the player is comfortable with and more
importantly is training/has trained with, serves as a tide turner — each word. It can flip, reverse, toss over a match — even
when the player has to come from behind.

A personal coach for a single contest and a solo journey in sport is,
or becomes, as important as a guru. He knows the sporting journey and
its intricacies closely. He knows the contours, dips, struggles and
the conquering of challenges in the player closely. He knows the
response and reaction in forehand, backhand, variation, movement,
rhythm, from the player in detail.

He knows weather variations in the player's mind. He knows, above all, how the player communicates. Communication. That's the word. A girl of
go-getter piercing focus, targets, ambition, who had even vowed that
she would upset a player of world ranking in Tokyo, wanted communication with her own coach. Factors were not on her side.

This author believes strongly in the phrase "nation first", deeply
believes in the value of the "guru" or coach in sport, and understands
the immense binding force of the emotion of team work and a team sport
(the emotion comes from Indian field hockey). Team and team coach at
an international event are and should be the umbrella for
performance, work, representation, and discipline for players.

The world championship, The Commonwealth Games (2022) and the 2024 Paris Olympics (the journey to which becomes shorter after Tokyo had to host the Games in 2021 for 2020) are waiting for Batra to unleash her

Her Tokyo experience should become the fire that melts the steel in
her mind and body, igniting the strengths further and solidifying the
steel. She needs to break those lumps of emotion in her throat in her fight to challenge the challenges thrown at her, and in moving up in world rankings over the journey to Paris.

Manika’s own achievements at international events are India's.

For authorities and federations, it is time to positively rethink the drawing board. This rethinking should find a drawing board at various stages to eventually go with the rules, regulations and needs pertaining to the associations of the different Games — in pre-Games months and years.

The buzz about giving the players the comfort of performing their best, “world class”, and all that, at international events, making them a hero if and when they return with a medal, etc., has its own weather changes.

Batra will need to fight well the challenges in the several fields of play, now, with more courage than she did in Tokyo.

Here is a question. Would things be different if Manika Batra managed to win at least a bronze in Tokyo?

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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