With a big responsibility on her shoulders to carry forward the baton of Indian table tennis, golden girl Manika Batra oozes confidence and charisma as she enters the TT playing area of Hansraj Model School in Punjabi Bagh, where she had spent most of her formative years learning the nitty-gritty's of the sport. Manika became a household name after her splendid show at the recently-concluded Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, where she bagged four medals for India in a sport which has never garnered the same amount of attention as compared to popular ones like badminton or shooting.
But, the 22-year-old paddler, with immense self-belief, had some other plans in her mind - she wanted the same respect, attention and fanfare for the sport with which she fell in love at a young age of four. In probably the biggest match of her career against Yu Mengyu of Singapore, Batra showed nerves of steel to overcome a 2-6 deficit in the first game of women's singles gold medal match at the buzzing Oxenford Studios in Gold Coast, Australia.
When quizzed about what was her state of mind while trailing against a tough opponent like Mengyu, Manika wasted no time in stressing about her strength which not only earned her the respect of 1.25 billion nation but also made her a role model for the millions of young girls who dared to dream big while holding that TT racquet in hand.
In an exclusive interview to India TV, Manika said: "To beat the world no. 4 Feng Tianwei of Singapore twice was a big-big thing for me, I never thought that I'll beat her at the Commonwealth Games. But, this is my strong point that whenever I'm down or pushed against the wall I have the ability to bounce back quickly with double the force."
"I love to perform under pressure and like challenges."
With a dream to win an Olympic gold for India, Manika's achievements at the Gold Coast Games gave us the glimpse of a promising future which holds a lot in store for her and for the country looking to find new sporting heroes. "Just like any other sportsperson, I also have goals in my mind but I want to take it tournament by tournament. I'm not very keen on making long-term goals."
"But yes if you ask me, I want to win Gold for India in Olympics. But presently my focus is completely on the World Team Championships in Sweden," Manika added.
The young athlete happily discussed about her training routine and at the same time showed the willingness to improve her fitness to be in sync with the world's top paddlers. She said: "I train 3-4 hours in morning and 3-4 hours in evening with my coach Sandeep Gupta at the Hansraj Model school. In between, I do my workout and do my mental training for a couple of hours."
"Just before every match I visualize and try to read my opponent's mind during the match. I personally never look at the rankings of my opponents and also don't concentrate how big a player I'm playing against."
If Manika Batra was a country, she would have finished among the top 20 nations at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast that ended on April 15.
Manika also dedicated her CWG gold medal to her coach Sandeep Gupta, she said "I want to dedicate this medal to my coach, he's a father-like figure to me. I started training with him from the age of four and I owe my success to him."
As per the critics and experts, Manika is the next big ping pong superstar from the country after Sharath Kamal who solely ruled sport in the last decade or so. After Manika's memorable outing in Gold Coast, the 35-year old Kamal officially announced the young paddler as his able successor for India.
"I couldn't be happier for her (Manika). I told her on the final day that now the responsibility is on you to take the sport forward. I have done my bit in the last 10 years," Kamal was quoted as saying by PTI.
On being questioned about her favourite idol from the Indian contingent that made headlines at the 2018 CWG, the lanky paddler named her compatriot Sharath Kamal as her idol. She said, "I follow Sharath bhaiya personally since childhood and want to achieve big feats like him for the country. He had mentioned my name in an interview to carry forward the TT legacy which I feel is a very big responsibility for me."
She also termed the 'God of Cricket' - Sachin Tendulkar as her biggest inspiration and wants to follow the footsteps of the legendary batsman in her career.
Apart from table tennis, Manika takes interest in other sports like football and lawn tennis.
Manika was the standout performer of India's successful Commonwealth Games campaign, she finished with four medals including two gold medals in the team event and first-ever in women's singles. Speaking more about that magical moment, the star paddler said, " It still feels like a dream to me. I have never throught that I will win 4 medals for India - 2 Golds, 1 silver and 1 bronze."
"And plus, to beat Singapore is a special feeling. They have not lost one match in table tennis in CWG since 2002 and are known to dominate the sport with consistent performances."
Throughout the interview, Manika answered questions with a big smile and spoke in detail about the special moments which shifted the limelight on her. And, the talented young gun is ready to spark a definite revolution in the cricket-obsessed country where other sports have generally struggled to make a mark. "I personally believe my achievements will spark a revolution for table tennis in India. Especially after my performance at CWG, more people will sit and take notice of table tennis seriously. And, it is my dream to take the sport of Table Tennis on top in India."
However, one can argue about the hype around Manika's achievements which come at the level where the TT giants like China or Japan were not in the fray? But it would be unfair to not give the due credit to an extremely talented Indian athlete who not only proved her class at the international event but has also emerged as the pin-up girl of a relatively lesser known sport which is struggling to find its foot-mark.
Manika's achievements have laid the foundation for a bright future and going by her confidence she seemed more than ready for the new challenges to pen down her own script in her own magical style. From the looks of it, the golden girl of Indian table tennis is here to stay!