New Delhi: Soon after her disappointing fifth-place finish in the 25m pistol final at the ongoing World Cup in Delhi, Manu Bhaker emerged with bloodshot eyes and collapsed in junior national coach Jaspal Rana's arms. It was a painfully endearing moment, one where an athlete, stripped of her guard and pained by failure, had submitted herself to her guide.
Quitely, the 17-year-old sobbed, until gradually and steadily, the sobs turned into a torrent of tears. No words were said; none were needed either. Jaspal trudged her to the players' room, where she broke down further.
"You have a lot of calibre, you'll go very far. Just keep going, you have a long journey to cover," is what Rana told her, Manu would inform later.
When she finally emerged with a sad smile, the mind harked back to last year's Asian Games, where after faltering in the 10m air pistol mixed team event, she broke down and left the venue in a huff. Back then, questions were raised about her temperament. On Sunday, India's pistol coach Pavel Smirnov said she is still "too young" and will get better at handling pressure with experience.
"She is a very fine shooter, but still very young. She will improve only with experience like these. She doesn't have enough experience to play in a seniors' final," Smirnov told Firstpost.
"This time, her temperament was good, but our temperament was not there," reasoned Jaspal Rana, her coach in the junior team. "If people are fighting outside, it disturbs shooters because it is such a mental sport. Me being there may or may not have worked for her, but all I want to say is that if something is going fine, there is no point changing it, especially so close to the event," he said. Conclusions are open to interpretation.
The ongoing state of affairs at the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) — the relation between Rana and NRAI is frosty, to say the least — has had an impact on Manu's performance, said Rana, who was at the venue in his personal capacity, and not on any formal invitation by the national federation.
"Manu shot very well in the qualifications (590), but in the final, something was not right. The confidence, as I could see, was not really there, and since I have not been part of the national camp, there was no one there with her. It is everyone's fault; I can't blame anyone. It is the nation's loss, not an individual's," he added.
Manu, meanwhile, brushed aside talks of pressure and apologised to the nation for missing her mark.
"I tried my best. I have to divide my time between 10m and 25m events...I don't know. There was a lot of crowd support too, and I would like to say sorry to the people. I will try harder next time," she said.
Manu had a slow start; she hit a total of five times in the opening two five-shot series, before making a resounding comeback in the next round when she shot a perfect 5/5 to jump to joint second. She maintained her lead in the next series but slipped to third place after a 3/5 in the next.
There was little inkling of an impending disaster after she shot a 4/5 in next round, which sent her back to the second place. Then came the decisive seventh series, where Manu crumbled under intense pressure.
She missed the mark on her first two shots, before hitting the next. The fourth shot was off target too, which ended her campaign in front of a packed Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range. All other competitors at that stage — Veronika Major, Jingjing Zhang, Haniyeh Rostamiyan and Monika Karsch — hit four of the five shots. The implosion was sudden and decisive.
The hushed crowd slowly found its voice, and the applause went on till Manu settled in the chair behind her firing position.
Later, Manu admitted that neither pressure nor occasion got to her. She just didn't have an answer.
"I played my natural game; it was not that the crowd created any pressure. I did not even look back (in the stands). I was really happy coming into the event, considering the competition was in India and there was so much home support. I don't know what happened to me.
"I don't think I made any mistakes. My monitor was on the wrong side, and I coudn't track my scores properly... But shooting is all about technique and I executed it properly. That it didn't work out is something else," she said.
Over the past year, Manu has struggled to match her 10m air pistol performance in the 25m event, but she said that Sunday's failure won't affect her performances in the 10m individual and mixed team events.
"Over the past year, my results in the 25m have been 4th, 5th, 6th. So, I really don't know what's wrong. At the Asian Games also, I was sixth, in Mexico, I was fifth...I am trying very hard though. I will now focus on the 10m event," she concluded.
The 10m air pistol individual event (women) will take place on Tuesday; the mixed-team competition is scheduled for Wednesday.
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Updated Date: Feb 24, 2019 20:14:00 IST