The long-distance weapon that helped Manika conquer Gold Coast
Manika Batra will go on to create sporting history on Saturday. A week after leading India to a historic women's team gold in the Commonwealth Games, the 22-year-old will win the singles crown too. Yes, that will happen. Yet mid-afternoon in Gold Coast's Carrara Stadium, that's not looking like happening. Manika is down two sets to three against three-time Olympic medallist Feng Tianwei in the semi-final of the women's singles event. For the first time at this Commonwealth Games, her face -- usually set in grim determination -- is sweaty with confusion. She looks up to the stands for advice but the one face that could reassure her and tell her what to do isn't there.
Her coach Sandeep Gupta is the only person she trusts with the answer. The no-nonsense former engineer's mind has been furiously decoding the enigma the Singaporean has placed before him and now he has the solution too. It's just that Gupta is tens of thousands of kilometres away -- stuck in front of a TV at his home in New Delhi, that is. It's an absolutely filmy moment. Indian sports films -- and surely Manika's exploits will warrant one eventually -- capture it well. Coaches are -- if Chak De! India and Dangal have taught us anything -- never around when you need them the most. They might train an athlete and prepare them for the biggest moment of their careers but are unable to take the shot themselves. Kabir Khan gets to watch from the sidelines as Vidya Sharma guesses the direction of a straight penalty hit in Chak De! India. Dangal's Mahavir Phogat gets locked in a bathroom. At least he was in the stadium.
But Gupta has a workaround. It is as innovative as the racket switch-hit that first befuddled Tianwei a week back. He simply phones in the answer. Next to Gupta's ear is a running WhatsApp call to Anthony Amalraj, Manika's compatriot in the men's team. The solution is relayed.
"Serve it short to the forehand."
At the Carrara Stadium, Amalraj gestures the move. Manika knows it. The previous day, she's had an hour-long call with her coach about just this. "Whatever Amalraj says, you do blindly," he had said then.
Manika looks and nods.
A week ago, Manika had surprised Tianwei with the power she was getting off the long-pimpled rubber on the backhand side of her racket. The long pimples invert spin but the tradeoff is a loss of pace. She had played the pimpled side short, drawing Tianwei forward and then -- by nearly indiscernibly flipping the racket to the inverted-pimpled forehand side -- cracking power winners past the wrong-footed opponent.
There's a reason Tianwei is a world-class opponent though. "She wouldn't have been sitting for one week," says Gupta. "She would have been watching videos of Manika. She knows what is coming and what to expect."
It isn't that Manika is playing poorly in the semi-final. Olympian Neha Aggarwal reckons she was very near peak performance. "Tianwei's topspins are some of the best in the world," she says. "It spins so viciously that it makes your racket hand tremble when you return them. Manika was playing them confidently."
But Manika's own trump card had been deciphered. "Manika was predominantly playing her serve down the line and that meant the game was mainly around her backhand," says Aggarwal, who too has been coached long-distance in the past. "But now Tianwei was reading it and knew how to respond." In the arms race of spin and counter-spin, the Singaporean was again secure in the knowledge that she was in front.
That was right until the change of serve. "Not all the time, but 60 per cent to that side," says Gupta. The serve forces Tianwei forward with the return to the forehand. A hard stroke returns the ball deep to the Singaporean's backhand. She must turn and that costs her time -- more than enough for Manika to punish her.
Gupta has coached Manika long-distance in the past too. "I can't always be there," he says. "And the rules are very relaxed in table tennis, so I can do this." He knows the method doesn't always work. The athlete in the middle of the arena can decide they know better.
But Gupta knows that won't happen. Ever since Manika began training under him back in 1999 as a four-year-old, she has trusted him entirely. "That's the only way this works," Gupta says. "Ever since she started with me, she has always believed in me. That I knew what would work. Manika's mind is like a notebook. Whatever I write, she will do. I don't even need to be there."
Indeed, Manika wraps up the win with few hiccups. A few hours later, she emphatically wins the final without dropping a game. Her poker face finally breaks out into a smile. Back in New Delhi, coach Gupta is bawling. "It seemed as if I was right there," he says.