Problems aplenty for Sakshi as Sonam wins 'the Malik battle' again

Sonam Malik won gold at the Women's Wrestling Nationals. United World Wrestling

It really doesn't seem like much of a rivalry if the results skew 3-nothing in favour of one competitor. However, the lopsided margin in favour of Sonam Malik over Sakshi Malik in head-to-head encounters only tells part of the story.

A little over a year ago, there was a sense of disbelief when Sakshi lost to Sonam for the first time. The latter had only recently turned 18, just graduating from the cadet age group. She had only been included in the match -- a selection trial to determine India's representative at the Matteo Pellicone International -- as a favour called by the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president because she was a World Champion in the U-18 age group. Sakshi, meanwhile, at least by virtue of her Olympic bronze medal -- if not for being the highest-profile woman wrestler in India -- was the standard bearer of the 62 kg division.

That match, had turned on its head in its dying seconds when Sonam threw her older rival for four points, winning by the barest of margins (10-10 on criteria). The second time they fought -- for a place in the squad that would compete in the Asian Olympic qualifiers -- it was a similarly close-fought match with only a single point (3-2) separating the two.

There was a sense of inevitability in the finals of the Women's Wrestling Nationals in Agra on Saturday. Although she is only a little over 19 at this point, Sonam appears to have strengthened her claim as India's representative to the women's 62kg division. Unlike the two previous results, there was clear daylight between the two, with Sonam winning by a two-point margin (7-5).

The result was a significant one. Both were coming after a long layoff, with their training being affected by the lockdown. On one hand, though, this gave Sonam the advantage. The first time she took on Sakshi, she was at a clear strength disadvantage. That gulf in physical attributes was not nearly as vast in Agra. This time, Sonam was older, stronger and more mature.

Despite this, Saturday's match was perhaps Sakshi's best chance to show her younger opponent that she was still a force to be reckoned with. Sonam was particularly vulnerable on the day. She had endured a hard weight cut the previous day. Already drained of much of her energy, her woes were compounded as she endured severe pain, suffering abdominal cramps for much of Saturday's contest. She barely got past her quarterfinal match with Haryana's Manisha, winning 3-2. "Stomach upset hai. Ladkiyon ka problem (She has an upset stomach. It's a ladies' problem)," her father would explain awkwardly.

Anti-spasm medication would permit her to fight on. She got past another talented youngster in Maharashtra's Bhagyashree in the semis to set up her clash against Sakshi, who had blitzed the field in her half of the draw.

It was never going to be an easy contest. While Sakshi's face was grim with determination, Sonam's was writ in repressed pain. The older wrestler would come out strong, pulling down Sonam and turning her to go up 4-0. But the storm was weathered. Sonam got a takedown of her own, and then pressured Sakshi out of the mat. Another takedown took her in front. Leading at the break, she picked up another two points to go 7-4 clear. Now in the lead, there was no sign of nerves. She frustrated the senior wrestler, twisting her fingers in her own. The foul cost a point, but frustrated Sakshi further. As the final seconds ticked away, Sakshi's attacks were steadily wilder even as Sonam Malik's defence grew steadily assured.

Sonam pumped her arm in triumph, but her challenges will only get bigger now. While she has beaten Sakshi twice before, she has never been able to take advantage of the opportunities those wins brought her -- losing early at the Matteo Pellicone International, and then the Asian Championships. Her confidence, though, would only have grown since those days.

The first time the two wrestlers had competed, Sakshi had her head in her hands, even as she hoped for a reprieve via a challenge. On Monday, she simply rushed away from the venue, not even staying long enough to collect her medal for second place.

Having vanquished an Olympic icon, Sonam, meanwhile, is looking in that direction too. "Her only target is the Olympics," says her father.