Manika Batra interview: 'Doesn't matter whether opponent is from China or Singapore, I just give my best'
Firstpost caught up with Manika Batra to understand what goes inside her mind while playing the game, how has life changed after CWG, her unique style of play and the impact of her mother and coach Sandeep Gupta in her career.
Manika Batra's life has changed a lot since the Commonwealth Games (CWG). The 14-day dream run in Gold Coast has skyrocketed her to the zenith of table tennis. While Sharath Kamal has been the poster boy for sport in India, Manika is the new flag-bearer and she is loving it. After a disappointing World Championships that followed the CWG, the Delhi girl bounced back in style at the Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT), winning four out of five singles matches and beating high-ranked players en route, playing for Dabang Smashers.
Firstpost sat down with Batra to understand what goes inside her mind while playing the game, how has life changed post CWG, her unique style of play and the impact of her mother and coach Sandeep Gupta in her career.
How has life changed after Commonwealth Games?
It has changed a lot. Earlier, table tennis wasn't a popular sport but after we won so many medals at the Commonwealth Games, including my four, it created a lot of difference. Now people are recognising me and the sport of table tennis. There is huge change in people's mindset. They have now started considering TT as sport that can bring home medals. It's a big thing. And it is very good for the young generation.
Are there any other changes in life?
Yes, my confidence has gone up, because defeating World No 4 is a huge thing. Even when I play in Pro Tours, the confidence remains high. I feel if I can beat World No 4, I can beat many players from different countries.
What does it feel like being called the poster girl of Indian table tennis?
Yeah, I am enjoying that (laughs). The important thing is to retain that tag. I have to work harder and bring home more medals.
How many endorsements did you have before CWG?
I don't think I even had. One or two, maybe.
How many after that?
After CWG, everyone is coming and asking for endorsements. So there has been a huge difference. But I am enjoying it, maaza aa raha hai (smiles). I haven't counted the number yet (laughs).
How are you handling the pressure of expectations?
Obviously, there is a bit of pressure but I am enjoying it. If I take it positively and think that everyone is with me and everybody wants me to win then it doesn't get me under pressure.
You have a unique style of play, can you explain it?
I have long pimple on my backhand. On my racquet, there is a normal rubber and a long pimple which very few players use, especially overseas. I can stop the ball with the long pimples and I can twiddle the racquet and play with normal rubber too. So this is my strong point. From the long pimple, I play my backhand and then I switch my rubber to speed up the game. So the opponent is confused and surprised.
How did you develop this style of play?
Earlier, only Neha didi (Neha Aggarwal, former Olympian) used to play with these kinds of rubbers. She was from my academy, and I learnt it by watching her. My coach used to teach her and I used to learn by watching them. There was criticism (about the style of play), but they didn't let it affect me. Neha didi and Sandeep sir said that we have to prove everyone wrong. They worked really hard on me, on how differently can we play with this rubber. So at that time, I practised a lot with this rubber.
When you twiddle the bat, how do you manage to keep your concentration?
When I play with long pimple, I don't know where the next ball will arrive. If I twiddle then it could come on forehand also but in that period, I have to read the opponent's action and mind. Where he/she will want to play next and where he/she will place their return. So at that moment, it's very difficult to change and play but I am able to do it at the last moment. Earlier, in my younger days, I used to keep twiddling the racquet even when I was at home. So it's because of that only that I am able to do so well right now.
How long did you take to perfect this style?
Two years. I had started with this style from the beginning (10-11), and by the time I was 13, I had almost perfected it. After that, I learnt the different variations within this style.
Did you get frustrated at times at not being able to adapt to this style, and there was just one coach who knew this technique?
No, the frustration never crept in. I never thought that I shouldn't play with this rubber and I am not able to play with it. I have been practising with it right from the start, and even if the frustration crept in, I knew I had to play. Whatever I have practised, I have to give my best in it. So frustration never crossed my mind.
You share a strong bond with your mother. Can you tell us how does it help you on and off the court?
My mother is my best friend. She mostly travels with me everywhere. Actually, I tell her (to come) because she loves to travel with me. So even if I lose, there is someone to motivate me. My mom motivates me a lot. When I lose, she encourages me to learn from those mistakes and go forward. The thing I like the most is the fact that my mom stays more energetic than me. That motivates me.
How much has been your coach Sandeep Gupta's contribution to your career?
A lot. He is like my father. Right from the age of four, I used to play under him. He has helped me a lot, not only on the court but off it too. He guides me a lot. I think not just Sandeep sir, everyone's support is important — Sandeep sir, my mom, TTFI, the government. If you have the support of all, then you can shape into a very good player.
How would a day in life of Manika Batra be like?
When I am at home, I do fitness from 6.30 am for one hour. Then I practise for 3-4 hours on the table and then I rest. In the afternoon, I go to practice at 3-3.30 pm and then again I carry out fitness for an hour. Then I come home, eat and sleep.
What's your schedule on a matchday?
In the morning, I do some meditation. And then analyse my opponent, her weak points etc. I don't practice much before a match; maybe one, one-and-half hours. Then I pray before heading into the match.
Are there any superstitions you follow before going into a match or a tournament?
Before going into a match, sometimes I wear the same earrings that I wore in the last match (smiles).
Your coach said your mind is like a clean slate; you can execute whatever said exactly the same way. How do u do that? Can you elaborate?
During the practice, sir makes me play as if it's a real match. So then I go into the match and play in the same way that I was taught and my mind is like 'I have to play what has been taught to me'. By chance, if I change it, then sometimes I miss the point. So then I again think of what I had practised and how I had earned points and then execute the same. So I am kind of disciplined girl, I do whatever sir tells me to.
What is your greatest strength?
My mom. She is my greatest strength.
Biggest strength in the game?
When I am down, something like three games to one, or 7-10 down in a particular game, then I keep myself very calm and I keep telling myself — 'I can win it from here also.' That is my strength. I keep myself calm during those (pressure) moments and then go on to win. In CWG also I managed to do that. I was 1-2 down against Feng Tainwei and in the last game I was 10-9 up and she took an edge-ball to make it 10-10. At that time, keeping yourself cool and calm is very important.
So this mental strength and self belief is innate or you have developed over time?
Right from the start, I used to keep myself calm and cool during pressure situations. But I do meditation for all these things.
What's your approach when an opponent suddenly starts playing opposite to her strengths?
At that time, I do get a little surprised sometimes. There is no time to think but I manage to handle it at that time. I also change my game which she doesn't understand.
How often do you play mind games with the opponent?
I get tricky with my long pimple rubber a lot. The opponent is not able to decipher whether I am responding with a long ball or a short one. I used all (those tricks) in the semis and finals of the Commonwealth Games. So yes, I love to play mind games (laughs), with my long pimpled rubber.
Does the opponent realise that you are playing mind games?
No. They don't realise it during pressure situations, not even the experienced players. I don't think they understand which ball I will play when.
What goes through your mind when you have just lost a point?
At that moment, you don't have much time but I keep telling myself 'I have to focus on the next point.' I forget that point and move ahead.
Does it affect other points too?
No, absolutely not. If I do that then I will keep losing points, I focus point by point.
If the opponent has taken a sizeable lead, what is your approach? Try and play safe or take the risky route and be ultra-aggressive?
In the past, if I was down with a large point difference then I used to start playing very safe. But there is a change now. I play well and freely when I am down. I use the entire range of my strokes and attack more. Even if I end up losing the point, it's okay. Keeping myself positive during that time is important.
How did you develop this positivity?
In my practice, our coach Sandeep sir creates situations where the opponent is leading 10-7, so practising in these situations has brought this positivity.
How much of your height gives you an advantage?
A lot, my reach is good because of my height. Even Sharath Kamal has a good reach because he is tall. But side by side, there is a little disadvantage because tall people have to bend more so they need to strengthen their backs. So I have to work a lot on that.
How did you get the idea of painting your nails with tri-colour and when did you start it?
I did it before Olympics in 2016. I painted India's flag on my nails. When I went to the last Commonwealth Games, in 2014, I saw the Singapore flag going up and right from that moment I wanted to see my flag go up at the CWG. I always had this dream. I always keep the flag with me and I painted it on my nails too. The national flag is in my heart. And while serving during the game, it's in front of me which constantly motivates me.
How did you get this idea though?
I like nail art so I thought I should paint the flag if I am participating in such a big event, playing for India.
You used to get modelling offers in the past....
Yes, three years back I had got offers but I don't remember which were those. My focus was just TT and right now also it's just TT.
Did you get any offers post CWG?
No, up till now I haven't got any. I just want to focus on TT. It's just the beginning. I have to get even more medals.
Growing up, who did you idolise?
Sharath bhaiya (Sharath Kamal), I am his fan. I have taken a lot of guidance from him.
How is Manika Batra on and off the field?
On the table, I am very serious but from inside I keep myself calm. Even if my best friend is playing opposite me, I consider him an enemy and play my game and try to win. But off court I am a very fun-loving girl. I like to enjoy a lot.
How do you switch off?
When I win, I get switched off early. I want to change the mind. I want to stay in present and enjoy the moment. When I lose, I take time to switch off. But like I said, my mom is there during that time she keeps motivating me so then my mood changes pretty quickly.
In the gap between tournaments, do you completely switch off from the game?
Not at all. I practice at that time because that is the time I work a lot on rectifying my mistakes, weak points. But we need free time also so I go shopping with my mom.
What are your other interests?
I love to dance. I read some religious books.
Earlier, Indian women never went on the court against a team like Singapore with the mindset to win. But after this year's stunning win, do you think the perception will change?
Yes. It will change obviously. When people qualify for Olympics, they are happy with the fact that they have qualified for the games but it doesn't come to my mind that I have to just qualify for the Olympics. Or reaching the quarters or semis is a big thing at CWG. But all that's going in my mind is that if we beat them then we will create history. The positivity keeps on running in my mind. So I think the same thing happened at the CWG. Honestly, I didn't know that Feng was World No 4, I didn't see her ranking before going into the match. The best thing about me is I don't keep thinking that she is from China or Singapore, rather, I give my best on the table.
What happened in those 14 days? 4 medals, the most by any athlete at the CWG, wasn't it like a dream?
Yes, obviously. Because right from the start, I and my coach had a dream to bring home a CWG medal. And in those 14 days, I was just focused, even when I used to visit my room I used to get the thought that 'I will win, and the flag will go up.' So it was running continuously in my mind throughout those 14 days which encouraged me a lot.
So when the flag finally went up, what was the feeling?
My heart was beating really fast. It was a proud moment for India and all of us with the Indian flag going up in one of the biggest games and the national anthem being played. It was an emotional moment especially when the national anthem was played in front of everyone.
What was the feeling at the reception you got on return?
It felt really good because in the past all these things didn't use to happen for table tennis. Entire India was proud of us with the message that India can do something in table tennis as well. Not only TT players and the ones associated with the game were there, but there were others too. So it felt really good watching that people have started to recognise you and the sport.
When you came back from CWG, there was a lot of adulation, media coverage etc what did you do in the next few days after coming home?
Yes, there was a lot of media coverage at that time. For two-three days it was continuously going on. I got very little time to practice for the World Championships and prepare. The interviews happened and then I practised for four-five sessions. And then departed for the World Championships. So I was not fully prepared, my mind wasn't there fully at the Championships. But I gave my best.
What are your short and long term goals?
Short term goal is to get into top 40 in the world. And long term, obviously an Olympic medal.
Among the other sportspersons, who do you idolise?
Sachin Tendulkar and Sharath Kamal. Because they are the legends. They have done a lot for the country. Sachin's presence, confidence and attitude motivates me a lot.
How has the Ultimate Table Tennis League helped you?
In the first season, I had beaten some very good players which built a lot of confidence. Earlier also I had said this, 'If I can beat them here, I can beat them in Pro Tours and everywhere'. It builds a lot of confidence. After season one of UTT we went to CWG, so I went with a positive mode and with confidence. UTT is really good for me and especially for the young generation which is coming up. They are getting to practice with high-ranked players and play matches, it's a very good (learning) experience.
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