by Simon Daish
Deceptive form book
Manika Batra had been causing a stir on the Indian table tennis scene preceding the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games; at 22 years of age there was great optimism surrounding this up-and-coming talent from India. However, the Indian star didn’t appear to have form on her side.
An opening round exit on home soil at the 2017 ITTF World Tour India Open, that would be Batra’s sole main draw appearance on the year’s Tour. Batra’s luck didn’t improve in the final few months leading up to the Games with qualification stage exits at the 2018 ITTF World Tour events in Hungary, Qatar and Germany.
A quarter-final finish at the 2018 ITTF Challenge Polish Open offered some encouragement but surely very few could have anticipated what was about to unfold one month later Down Under.
Star of the show
The 2018 Commonwealth Games presented Batra with an opportunity to impress – hopes were high for Team India with the country desperate to produce a strong showing following a disappointing outing from the country’s table tennis contingent at Rio 2016.
Imperious against Malaysia and England in the opening two rounds, India was in with a serious shout of women’s team gold. Two wins to her name, Batra was the star of the show in the final as India prevailed 3-1 over Singapore. India had been crowned women’s team champions for the first time!
Batra would go on to collect three more medals at the Oxenford Studios, with two (one silver and one bronze) coming courtesy of doubles participation. Yet, it was her success on the women’s singles front that would provide Batra’s most famous of moment on the Gold Coast.
“I have never played better!”
Seeded fourth for the event, Batra was always in with a shout when it came to title race discussions, but she was by no means the favourite. Opening her campaign with a 4-1 win over Australia’s Tracy Feng (11-6 11-6, 9-11, 11-9, 11-7), Batra went on to live up to expectations as she secured her place in the top four with victory over Singapore’s Zhou Yihan (11-5, 11-6, 11-2, 6-11, 11-9).
Confidence on her side but Batra was about to meet the toughest player on paper with top seeded Singapore star Feng Tianwei providing the opposition in the semi-finals. The odds appeared to be stacked against Batra but an incredible display of courage led to a most rewarding outcome, recovering from 2-3 down to see off Feng in a seven-game thriller (12-10, 5-11, 11-8, 5-11, 5-11, 11-9, 13-11).
Batra had done the unthinkable. She had eliminated the reigning champion, now the only thing standing between her and the title was none other than the runner up from Glasgow 2014, another of Singapore’s finest in Yu Mengyu.
Off to a tricky start, Batra found herself 1-6 down in the opening game of the final. It appeared that Yu had found the answers to the Indian player’s blocking style approach which had proved most effective against Feng in the previous round. However, Batra remained steadfast to recover the situation and from that point on she didn’t look back, cruising to a mighty 4-0 win over Yu to take home India’s first-ever women’s singles gold medal (11-7, 11-6, 11-2, 11-7)!
“I feel very proud to have won and even more proud to have won for India. My aim was to win a gold medal for India and I did it! Here at the Commonwealth Games it is the best table tennis I have ever played. I have never played better. In the first game I was down 6-1; I said to myself I can recover and win and I did.” Manika Batra
Significant moment for India
A truly heroic feat for the Commonwealth Games newcomer from India, Batra had guided her country to new heights and her efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
Batra’s popularity soared worldwide and later in the year she was honoured at a special ceremony organised by the Table Tennis Federation of India as she met the Honourable Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India.
Representing a country quickly emerging as a major table tennis nation, Manika Batra’s golden trip Down Under could well be reflected on in years ahead as a significant moment in the history of Indian table tennis.