A navy-blue-curtained portion of the India Khelega academy in Pune's upscale neighbourhood of Sahakar Nagar has its lights racing the sun. Its most high-profile member, India's top-ranked female table tennis player Manika Batra, is clocking 5 a.m. sessions. At the heart of the chase lies Tokyo.
Japan's capital city is three hours and 30 minutes ahead of India, and Manika is syncing her mind, body and sleep cycle to the venue of the Olympics. She began with 7 a.m. training sessions a month ago to pace herself toward the goal. Right through the peak of the coronavirus's second wave in May, the three-member team of Manika, her Belarussian sparring partner Kiryl Barabanov and coach Sanmay Paranjape ventured into the city's empty streets at daybreak for training, bearing permits from the local administration.
The academy Paranjape runs has no other female players. A small bunch of male trainees, their count dwindling since the pandemic outbreak, practices at the facility, as does a group of pre-teen underprivileged orphans and those from broken families. Paranjape runs a charitable foundation to support them.
Barabanov, who featured alongside Paranjape in the German table tennis Bundesliga, arrived in India in September last year. He compensates for the skewed gender ratio by stationing himself close to the table, varying pace and employing the push stroke, a defensive backspin shot used largely by female players to shuffle pace during exchanges or to return low or close shots.
During the first two months of their sessions, Barabanov would typically play the forehand flick to Manika's serve, brushing the ball with topspin. Slowly, he began throwing in the anticipated response of Manika's opponents through pushes and chops. Regular sparring with a male player has given Manika a bonus: an Olympic mixed doubles berth. In March this year, she and partner Achanta Sharath Kamal upset the World No. 5 Korean pair of Sang-Su Lee and Jihee Jeon in a must-win match in Doha for a Tokyo spot. "Ab ladkon ka top-spin tackle kar pa rahi hoon (Now I'm able to tackle the top-spin of male players)," says Manika, who did a neat job of blocking Lee's forehands in the final. "I need to block for Sharath bhaiya (elder brother) to attack the next ball freely. Sparring with Kiryl has helped me understand and counter male opponents better."
For the singles sparring, Barabanov changes shape. "We sit down and map out in detail how I should play against each of my possible singles opponents," says Manika. "Women play the push stroke more often so we decide our sequential drills accordingly. Even though I don't get to spar with women, Kiryl makes up for it well." They had been chewing on the idea of inviting a European female sparring partner for Manika, before a spiraling pandemic situation undid their plans.
At 25, Manika is two years younger than Paranjape. She'd parted ways with her childhood mentor of 15 years and moved out of her home in New Delhi to Pune to train under Paranjape in early 2019. The previous year, she'd swept four Commonwealth Games medals -- a game-changing moment in the Indian context of the sport. It was one of the few times her matches at a major tournament were beamed live to the country's TV audience. Tour events are often tucked away in online streams narrated through staid, genteel commentary. She treated Indian fans to a stunning win over Olympic medallist and World No. 4 Feng Tianwei, and was greeted on her return by crowds at the New Delhi airport - the sort of fan following she'd only seen for a smattering of names outside of cricket in India.
Manika is ranked 67 in the world, and doesn't count herself a solid singles medal prospect in her second Olympic appearance. She faced an early elimination in Rio, losing her preliminary round singles match to a 60th-ranked Polish player. This time, her brief is simple - pull no punches and see where the trip takes her. The 2024 Paris Games is her destination address, Tokyo an instructional pit-stop. A question on what she is looking for from this Olympics fetches an almost reflexive response, perhaps born out of the many ways she's already been quizzed about it. "I want to surprise myself," she says. "Kuch shock karke aana chahti hoon (I want to pull off a few upsets). I have enough time to prepare for 2024. I think it'll be my best chance. Hopefully, we'll return to a more normal world by then."
"We nicely complement each other and both of us thrive under pressure. I bring in the explosive game, she slows it down so there's a good contrast going on and especially in long rallies it works well. Earlier, she wasn't as strong." Sharath Kamal
When they began working together, Paranjape, a former national-level player who'd plied his trade in the German Bundesliga for seven years in a truncated career, says he spotted gaps in Manika's work ethic. Chief among them the lack of a structured training routine and a crunch in appetite for multi-ball sessions - the repetitive drill of being fed balls from the other side of the table, amplifying quantity of training, adding speed and stamina, improving footwork and helping simulate match scenarios. "The primary job," Paranjape says, "was settling her down as an athlete."
"Was yesterday's gym session completed? What about the multi-ball session from two days ago? If so, we have to increase the load," he says in instructor style. "Those were the things I chased in the first few months. Initially, when we are chalking training routines, it wasn't just resistance. It was non-acceptance."
Manika's 2-4 loss to Chen Szu-Yu at the Hong Kong Open in June 2019 somewhat spliced through that mutiny. "Main multi-ball karungi (I will do multi-ball training)", the unexpected crackle of resolve greeted Paranjape over a WhatsApp voice-call that night. It was a sign that the player he'd been part-sparring, part-training for five months then was beginning to come around to his prescription. A change of heart expedited by a Round of 32 loss to the higher-ranked Chinese Taipei opponent.
In the weeks leading up to the Korea Open a month later, Manika followed a strict multi-ball diet at the Pune academy and went on to qualify for the tournament main draw, beating two Korean players and a Chinese one. "After those results," adds Paranjape, "she started listening to me with fewer doubts and trusting the process. When we started out, she would do 4-5 multi-ball sets and think it's enough. Now she goes through roughly 2k balls in a 4-5 day span."
The Chinese national team famously employed a multi-ball drill, which involved a coach squatting down in front of a player and tossing table tennis balls left and right at close range. The player would have to stay low and try to kick the ball within the fraction of a second. Six of the current top 10 women's singles players are from China, and Manika is aware of that stacked factoid. "Against the Chinese and Japanese, you have no time to think," she says. "They stand close to the table, pick up the ball early so you too have to match their speed and take the ball on the bounce. Since my pimpled rubber game has me switching the racquet face mid-rally, I have to be really, really quick." The deception lies in the indecipherable speed.
The long-pimpled rubber coating on the backhand side of her racket - designed to manipulate the ball with vicious spin and used only by a tiny pool of international players - has been her weapon of choice. She was introduced to it by her former coach Sandeep Gupta, who travelled to Switzerland along with his then student Neha Aggarwal, to have a closer look at its technique. Neha, who featured in the 2008 Olympic Games, was nearing the end of her career and it only seemed prudent then to pass it down to Manika, her younger academy mate in Delhi.
In contrast to the more commonly used flat or inverted rubbers, long pips create an opposite effect on the incoming spin. A topspin attack chopped back with long pips, for instance, reaches the other end of the table with heavy backspin. The defensive long-pipped rubber is built to counter spin attacks since they're slower and allow more time to shape up for a chop or block, but may stutter against drive attacks. With the evolution of the game - distinguishing colours on both sides of the racket, faster tables - the effectiveness of the rubber has dipped too. Manika manoeuvres her racket, switching between the flat rubber forehand side and long pips on the backhand, for a surprise sledgehammer impact.
"People usually talk about her weak forehand. Opponents attack it," says Paranjape. "The Qatar tour in March showed us it's much improved. Before her Round of 64 match against Cheng Hsien-Tzu, we decided not to work on her pimple game and let her use her forehand. She ended up winning that match," Paranjape says. "We spent some time thinking about it last year. Do we focus all our energies on strengthening a slightly weaker aspect, in this case her forehand, or work on making her backhand, which is her biggest strength, even more superior?" The answer lay somewhere in between.
Manika made a four-day trip to Chennai for mixed doubles sessions with Sharath Kamal and they followed it up with another round of sparring at the national camp in Sonepat, last week. "After our 2018 Asian Games doubles (bronze) medal together, I told myself I have to ramp up my singles training if I want to be a stronger partner," she says. Three years later, Manika is almost there. "Her forehand is much improved and overall she has a more compact game now. It was evident in Doha," Sharath explains. "Whenever I created openings and we were on an offensive swing, she was able to continue the thread of attack. We nicely complement each other and both of us thrive under pressure. I bring in the explosive game, she slows it down so there's a good contrast going on and especially in long rallies, it works well. Earlier, she wasn't as strong."
They have been working on combinations and tweaks in their positioning - Sharath stationed a few feet behind the table and Manika more impactful standing close, since her pimpled rubber is less effective when pushed farther back. A weakness their opponents could exploit. "Even if we're stranded in situations where our positions are reversed in long rallies, we are working on ways to return to our positions without upsetting the balance," he says.
Given their record so far, the pair is making a pitch for an outside chance at a podium finish in Tokyo, one that would take no more than three wins. To ease their path, the World No. 19 duo will be leaning on some favours from the draw.
Two destructive opponents they'll be hoping to avoid early - Japan's Jun Mizutani and Mima Ito and Chinese Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin, World No. 2 and 3 pairs respectively, one they've never faced and the other they're yet to beat. "Getting better in singles makes you a stronger doubles player," says Sharath, who will be making his fourth Olympic appearance. Ranked 32 in the world in singles, it's the highest he's ever been placed going into a Games, driving his belief that results could be different this time.
"Doubles in table tennis is quite different from how other racket sports work. Most of our sport's mixed doubles pairs have pretty good singles games. When you play the top pairs, it's almost like going up against two men." Unlike in tennis and badminton, in table tennis, doubles partners strike the ball alternately. It effectively requires that doubles partners not just sync as a team but also by themselves as individual players. They're of similar height - Sharath stands at around 6' and Manika shorter by only a few millimetres. The blessing of terrific wingspan and lateral reach, however, comes with their lower backs and knees needing to be wadded with sufficient attention from being bent at the table in focused attention.
"If I know I've put in as much work in the match as in training, I don't feel so bad. Now when I lose, I immediately go back and train. It hurts less that way and also allows me to get over the defeat. I begin to see my mistakes more clearly." Manika Batra
Before the pandemic arrived last year, Manika had a fairly big win coming her way. She'd fought her way back from three games and a match point down against World No. 26 Chinese Taipei opponent, Chen, at the Hungarian Open in February. She could dip into it in the months away from competitions that followed. "For someone like Manika, ranked outside the top 60, that win was huge," says Paranjape. "The belief that she'd been doing something right kept her going during the lockdown. The time off also gave her time to think about her instincts and goals. When the world comes to a standstill, the pressure of winning and the fear of losing suddenly become irrelevant. Sport has transformed. There are no spectators. Now it's just you and your business."
Defeats, Manika offers, aren't as devastating as they were earlier. She's built her own mechanism to combat their bruising aftereffects - by immersing herself in practice.
"Earlier, I was completely focused on the result," she says. "Now I've learnt to look at the effort too. If I know I've put in as much work in the match as in training, I don't feel so bad. Now when I lose, I immediately go back and train. It hurts less that way and also allows me to get over the defeat. I begin to see my mistakes more clearly."
She has also noticed a shift, even if somewhat imperceptible, in how she's viewed by higher-ranked names in the world. "I think there's greater respect now. But I don't want to worry about everyone having figured me out. I can't let myself think that I can't do well enough because I'm using a 'funny' rubber," she says, alluding to the predictability appended to long pips.
She responds to a query on the challenge of staying away from home with a line from a 90s Bollywood hit on the trade-off between sacrifice and reward and calls shopping and dancing therapeutic. One of the two activities has been ruled out for months together now, so she occasionally buries herself in self-help and motivational reads. To avoid the steady trickle of updates on an uncertain Olympics, which could have become a "distraction", she stayed away from the news.
The early morning start, she reckons, has purged sleeping in late and her day is divided between two training sessions at the academy and bedtime comes early at 9pm. She sheepishly inquires if the interview can be sandwiched between her morning's sparring schedule and agility session. Discipline noted.
For now, she's a morning lark, hunched over the table, going block-block-block-push.