Batra embraces change and moves forward

“Nazar mat lagao,” Manika Batra joked when told of her recent habit of beating the top 25 players.

One that kicked off at the Asian Cup where she sailed past China’s Chen Xingtong (then ranked 7th), Taipei’s Chen Szu-Yu (23rd) and Japanese Hina Hayata (6th), continued at this year’s WTT Contender Doha where she accounted for Szu-Yu again and carried into the WTT Star Contender Goa where she defeated world No. 14 Adriana Diaz in the Round of 32.

On Friday, the 34th-ranked Indian couldn’t find the gear to put China’s world No. 20 Qian Tianyi under sustained pressure, losing 3-1 (6-11, 3-11, 11-9, 7-11) to the southpaw in the Round of 16. However, the last four months, in which Batra won the historic Asian Cup bronze, made the semi-finals of the Doha Contender and achieved her career-high ranking to go with taking down these top players, have been a definite upswing for the star paddler.

“Beating these kind of players helps raise belief,” Batra said. “I don’t think going into a match that she is ranked higher than me. But I do form my own strategies based on who I’m facing. And it changes on the table, because sometimes they don’t work.”

It didn’t, for instance, in the third game against Diaz that she surrendered in the 3-1 victory. Batra though was quick to tweak her gameplan, staying away from her backhand and asking more attacking questions from the forehand. Having the mind—and the heart—to do that mid-match against the top players has a lot to do, Batra reckoned, with confidence.

Change in coaching setup

It’s something the 27-year-old has been carrying in greater volume for the past few months. It’s something that went missing during and in the aftermath of the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) from which Batra returned empty-handed as the defending singles champion and four-time medallist of 2018.

“After the CWG, I was really down. But after the World Team Championships, I would say, there has been a lot of change and improvement in my game.”

A change in her coaching setup just before Asian Cup was the catalyst. Batra decided to part ways with German coach Chris Pfeiffer and train with former player Aman Balgu at his academy in Hyderabad. “My first job was to make her mentally strong again. And then get down to the basics of the game, which is reminding her what exactly her game is and what works for her,” Balgu, who sat in the coach’s box for all of Batra’s singles matches here, said.

That game revolves a lot around her attacking play, which was also tuned to go with her long-pimpled rubber apart from the forehand wing. “Players are getting more used to playing against pimples now,” Batra said. “But I think I have improved a lot of other things, like in my forehand. That change even my opponents are getting to see now, and they are feeling it.”

Batra, too, is feeling a shift in her mindset, triggered by the “positive surrounding”, as Balgu termed it, at her new training base in Hyderabad where the likes of Reeth Rishya and Sanil Shetty also train. The blend of calm and confidence is bringing the flavour back into Batra’s table tennis.

“I always had an attacking game. But for that, confidence matters a lot. At the Asian Cup, I was really playing with that confidence. I wasn’t too worried about winning or losing and taking pressure.

“I’m really happy with how I played at the Asian Cup and the Doha Contender and here. Hopefully, my game continues to go the way it is now.”

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