On Sunday, Manika Batra pulled off the biggest win of her career by beating three-time Olympic medallist and world number four Tianwei Feng of Singapore 11-8, 8-11, 7-11, 11-9, 11-7 in the first singles rubber of the table tennis women's team event gold medal match at the Commonwealth Games. The result set India on the path to a historic maiden team gold, beating the world champions Singapore who, until then, had never lost at the Games. It was as close to a miracle as possible and, as is often the case with such things, was accomplished by a bit of sleight of hand. It happened so quickly you might have missed it if you weren't looking. Indeed, that was what Manika was hoping for.
Level at two sets each, Manika was leading 2-1 up in the decider when she played a backhand defensive shot. Her racquet was coated with the long pimpled rubber that's built for defence, which absorbs the spin and turns it around - backspin to topspin, sidespin to flat. As a tradeoff, it sucks any pace off the ball and drops it close to the net. With her years of experience, Feng knew that, so she stepped forward and hit it back at Batra's backhand, awaiting an even weaker reply. What she got was a powerful down-the-line stroke that left her completely wrongfooted.
Conventional table tennis wisdom would suggest that stroke was impossible. Fast, spinning strokes could only be played from the rubber with inverted pimples on the forehand side of Manika's paddle. And there lay the trick. In the fraction of a second before she hit the decisive backhand, Manika flicked the paddle around so the flat, power-generating side faced the ball. The result left Feng bamboozled, and it was repeated multiple times over the match, much like a batsman tricked by a googly when he might have expected a legspinner.
It's a trick that originated at New Delhi's STAG academy in 1998, when Neha Aggarwal first started training under coach Sandeep Gupta. The use of long pimpled rubber on the backhand was quickly dismissed by most of his peers. "All the other coaches said that you can't get anywhere with long pimpled rubber. They called it funny rubber because it was seen as this thing that you could use against kids who didn't know how to read the change of spin. But at the senior level, you were going to get smashed if you played with it because it took all the pace off the ball," says Aggarwal, who was India's sole representative in the women's singles draw at the Beijing Olympics.
This was not a wrong assessment. Gupta reckons perhaps only five percent of players at the senior level use the rubber. While it was a good defensive rubber, it was impossible to put much power on the backhand. "If I wanted to attack, I had to go all the way around and hit the ball inside out with my forehand. And that obviously won't work against top-level players," says Aggarwal.
Eventually, Gupta and Aggarwal found a workaround. Beginning in 2005, they tried simply switching the side with which to play the backhand, an innovation that was thought of too late to benefit Aggarwal. But it came at the right time for Manika - who is six years younger than Aggarwal - when she joined the same academy. "There was a lot of research that went into flipping the paddle around. I couldn't ever master it. But Manika learned this from the time she started playing. So it has become very natural for her," says Aggarwal.
The technique has served her well. At 22 years old, her world rank of 58 is the highest ever for an Indian player. Although it has worked for Manika, Aggarwal reckons only a couple of other players have a similar style -- It requires too much work to perfect and it isn't a silver bullet. "Manika has been playing this way from the time she started her career. But she has had to work a lot to make this work. Manika didn't have a very good forehand or serve and she has had to work on that. This style is an art but Manika is very smart in using it," says Aggarwal.
It is possible to prepare against this style, though. "Think of it like a slower ball in cricket," says Gupta, currently coach of the Indian junior team. "A really good batsman in form will be able to play it. But If you are a little bit off on the day, you wont pick the variation. That's what happened today," he says of Feng's inability to adapt.
It wasn't just the mystery backhand that contributed to Manika's win. "I've never seen Manika play so well. She was just nailing every shot, backhand or forehand. I think it was just that she rose to the occasion and the stage she was competing on," says Aggarwal.
Having played the game of her life, it remains to be seen how well Manika will fare in the individual and doubles events. For Aggarwal, though, a team victory is massive enough as it is. "Throughout my career, I could never imaging ever even beating Singapore," she says.
At least some credit goes to a technique that many of her peers once mocked. "Me and Sandeep sir had made so many experiments with this technique. Both of us were learning it as we played. People said it couldn't be done but we proved it at the biggest stage," says Aggarwal.