Success on Saturday 20th March at the Asian Olympic Qualification tournament in the splendid setting of the Ali Bin Hamad Al Attiya Arena in Doha, India’s Sharath Kamal Achanta and Manika Batra, secured a place in the mixed doubles event at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Was it not the most important match, the most important win of all in the nation’s quest for representation in the prestigious quadrennial event? Whatever the outcome in the other events, is the mixed doubles not India’s best chance of a first ever medal in the Olympic table tennis events?
The no.2 seeds, commencing in the quarter-finals, they beat Qatar’s Mohammed Abdoulwahhab and Maha Faramarzi, the no.5 seeds (11-6, 11-6, 11-2, 11-3), before accounting for Singapore’s Pang Yew En Koen and Lin Ye, the no.4 seeds (12-10, 9-11, 11-5, 5-11, 11-8, 13-11). A place in the final reserved; the good form continued. They overcame Korea Republic’s Lee Sangsu and Jeon Jihee, the top seeds (8-11, 6-11, 11-5, 11-6, 13-11, 11-8), to achieve their avowed goal.
A combination of the mighty forehand of Sharath Kamal Achanta with the changes in speed and length created by the long pimpled rubber on the backhand of Manika Batra proved a winning formula.
Success in Doha, was it a surprise? Perhaps not. At the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, in the bronze medal mixed doubles match, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Manika Batra had beaten Sharath Kamal Achanta and Mouma Das (11-6, 11-2, 11-4) to secure bronze.
Later in the year at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Sharath Kamal Achanta and Manika Batra joined forces; the decision paid dividends. Most significantly in the third round they beat Lee Sangsu and Jeon Jihee (11-7, 7-11, 11-8, 10-12, 11-4), before accounting for DPR Korea’s An Ji Song and Cha Hyo Sim (4-11, 12-10, 6-11, 11-6, 11-8) to reserve a semi-final place.
China’s Wang Chuqin and Sun Yingsha, the champions elect, ended progress (11-9, 11-5, 11-13, 11-4, 11-8); however, it was a bronze medal, it was a major success, a major motivating force.
Following the men’s and women’s team gold medals at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, then a first ever men’s team bronze at the Jakarta 2018 Asian Games, did we not expect to see India in the team events in Tokyo?
In Gondomar, at the 2020 World Team Qualification Tournament, nine places available, in the men’s event the trio comprising Sharath Kamal Achanta, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Hameet Desai started life the no.5 seeds, favourites to progress. They lost 3-1 to Slovenia’s Darko Jorgic, Deni Kozul and Bojan Tokic, the no.11 seeds and then by the same margin when facing the Czech Republic’s Tomas Polansky, Lubomir Jancarik and Pavel Sirucek, the no.16 seeds.
Similarly, represented by Manika Batra, Ayhika Mukherjee and Sutirtha Mukherjee, the no.17 seeds, it was women’s team heartbreak in Gondomar. A 3-2 defeat when facing Romania’s Daniela Monteiro Dodean, Elizabeta Samara and Bernadette Szocs, the no.5 seeds, was followed by the same margin of defeat when confronting the French outfit comprising Stéphanie Loeuillette, Marie Migot and Yang Jia Nan, the no.18 seeds.
Disappointing after finishing 2018 on such a high; but India had never ever qualified for either the men’s or women’s team events at an Olympic Games.
Fast forward to the 2020 World Singles Olympic Qualification Tournament in Doha and more disappointment. In the men’s event both Sharath Kamal Achanta, the no.5 seed and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, the no.7 seed, experienced opening round defeats against Italian adversaries. Sharath Kamal Achanta was beaten by Niagol Stoyanov, the no.31 seed; Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, the no.7 seed, lost to Mihai Bobocica, the no.36 seed (11-7, 11-6, 11-8, 11-5).
It was little different for the women; at the quarter-final stage Sutirtha Mukherjee, the no.21 seed, lost to Russia’s Polina Mikhailova, the no.5 seed (11-9, 11-4, 8-11, 11-4, 11-9), one round later, Monaco’s Yang Xiaoxin, the no.4 seed defeated Manika Batra, the no.9 seed (11-9, 11-4, 8-11, 11-4, 11-9).
Just one option remaining, the immediately ensuing Asian Qualification Tournament. It proved a success for the second seed against the top seed in the determining match. Sathiyan Gnanasekaran beat Sharath Kamal Achanta (11-9, 15-13, 5-11, 7-11, 10-12, 11-9, 11-8); Sutirtha Mukherjee accounted for Manika Batra (7-11, 11-7, 11-4, 4-11, 11-5, 11-4).
Asia is eligible for six players in each of the men’s and women’s singles by qualification, the one further place is allocated to the highest ranked player among the respective first reserve players in each regional qualification based on the April 2021 ITTF Olympic Qualification Ranking Lists. The most likely names in question are Sharath Kamal Achanta and Manika Batra but we must wait for confirmation.
Positions in the singles events but realistically is not a question of far the Indian representative may advance in events that each involve some 70 players with none likely to appear amongst the top 20 names?
Is it not more realistic in the mixed doubles? Just 16 pairs, the draw may play a massive factor but win your opening match, you are in the quarter-finals and in sight of a medal match. It’s the Olympic Games, who knows what extra pressure that phrase adds, who knows what may happen.
A medal for India, surely the mixed their best chance?
Editor: Ian Marshall