An Under-21 match played in Santiago, Chile in August 2011 is Manika Batra's fondest memory so far. India's top-ranked women's table tennis player, 16 at the time, came back from two games down in the semi-final against Japan's Kasumi Ishikawa to win the next four games on the trot. Ishikawa, who won the women's singles title two days later, is now ranked sixth in the world.
"I had no expression on my face, though I was delighted," says Manika, who will be leading the Indian challenge in the women's singles event at the Rio Olympics alongside the seasoned Mouma Das.
Born into a family in Delhi where elder siblings Anchal and Sahil both took up table tennis, Manika tried her hand at the sport at the age of four. Early signs of natural ability came when she won a match in a state-wide tournament for Under-8 players. That was around the time she enrolled with Sandeep Gupta, her coach to date.
"She was four years old when I first took a trial of hers," says Gupta. "I have seen how other countries formulate their sports plan; for instance in China, by the time a child is four-five years old, they can tell which sport he/she is best suited for. That's why it was an advantage for Manika to start this young."
On Gupta's recommendation, Manika switched schools in the first standard, joining her coach's academy at Hansraj Model School. This also brought her in contact with her elder sister's peer Neha Aggarwal, who would go on to play a major role in inspiring Manika.
Neha, who competed in Beijing eight years ago and will complete a sports management degree from Columbia University in New York soon, remembers Manika's early days as a shy child who kept to herself. "For some reason, she used to be really scared of our coach," says Neha. "I'd keep telling her to open up."
Gupta says: "In India, there's often a very thin line between having respect for a coach, and getting into a comfort zone. Manika always followed everything I said. But her problem was her nature; she often couldn't express herself. If she wanted to learn something new or work on something in her game, she could often not say it for herself, which made it a greater challenge for me as coach."
That's when Gupta employed a novel method to work with Manika's strength, her backhand, and turn it into a potent weapon. Neha remembers how both she and Manika were made to play with long-pimple rubber on their backhand and the more conventional inverted rubber on their forehand. This has made Manika's forehand considerably stronger over the past four years, says Neha.
"Manika's height, 5ft 11 inches, also gives her an edge over many opponents. Because of her reach, she's always close to the table and can switch from forehand to backhand without much movement. But the downside is that balls played to her body require an extra split-second to retrieve."
Manika's height, five feet eleven inches, also gives her an edge over many opponents. Because of her reach, she's always close to the table and hence can switch from forehand to backhand without too much movement. But the downside is that balls played to her body require an extra split-second to retrieve. Her height has also made her vulnerable to injuries in the past. "Because I am tall, I have had issues with my back and thighs, but I have been working hard to strengthen my core," Manika says. "I have paid a lot of attention to fitness."
The effort Manika has been putting into fitness is just one of the things that has always impressed both Neha and Gupta. "What often happens with kids is they get bored if you ask them to master one aspect at a time," Gupta says. "Due to lack of maturity, they want to quickly move on from skills to exercise to fitness. But Manika was always dedicated, and she would continue to do whatever she was asked to without complaining."
Neha says: "She's a completely different person on the table from what she is off it. She knows how to put her game face on. On the table, she's very aggressive. She can be very deceptive with her game, and her game has the perfect mix of aggression and passive play."
Manika's performances have improved over the past two years, with a quarterfinal finish at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, a match she believes she should have closed out against eventual bronze-medallist Lin Ye of Singapore.
Since 2014 she has cultivated the habit of recording the matches of every competitor to analyse their strengths and weaknesses. Daily meditation also helps her stay calm.
"Coach Sandeep Gupta says he won't be surprised if Manika makes the quarterfinals or even better in Rio."
These attributes helped her in a competitive group alongside compatriots Das, Pooja Sahasrabuddhe and K Shamini at the Asian qualifiers for the Olympics in Hong Kong in April. After losing her first match to Pooja, she came back strongly to top her group by beating both Shamini and Das to book her berth to Rio. The last win would have been the most satisfactory, as the experienced Das had beaten Manika in the final at the South Asian Games in February to deny her a perfect return from the event, after golds in the women's team event, the women's doubles and the mixed doubles.
Neha believes Manika is part of a generation of players who can revive the status of women's players in India, who have lagged behind the men for a variety of reasons. While all the top five Indian men play for clubs abroad, few among the women do -- only Shamini among the top women's players spent two years playing in Germany. Among the younger players, Diya Chitale of Mumbai and Archana Kamath of Bengaluru are breaking the mould by training abroad, but this is just the start.
"Indian women's table tennis has lagged behind because our women have never looked beyond a Commonwealth medal," says Neha. "The men have sacrificed national championships to go and participate abroad, but that shows that they have learnt to prioritise better."
Gupta believes those first steps towards a stellar career could begin in Rio. "Manika is still young, and qualifying for Rio in itself is a big thing," says Gupta. "She's the first Indian who has had wins over top-10 women's players in the world across the last couple of years. I wouldn't be surprised if Manika makes the quarterfinals or even better, but I will say that she's got nothing to lose."
Neha sounds a word of caution though about expecting too much from someone ranked number 130 in a competitive field of 86 participants. The former Olympian chooses instead to focus on how Manika's role could be significant in terms of the larger picture of women's table tennis in India. "Manika is a symbol of a whole new generation of players who are young, talented and much more driven," Neha says. "She hasn't trained abroad as yet, and that's where the real challenge for her is. Her career starts once the Olympics get over."