There’s something different about Manika Batra these days. Usually, after losing a close point, she would normally look at her coach in despair, mumble something, and then try to motivate herself for the next point. Now, while she does motivate herself for the next point, she remains focused, looking directly at the table, even letting out a rare smile.
A lot has changed for India’s ‘Golden Girl’ since her poor outing at the Commonwealth Games last year. Much was expected of her in Birmingham given her exceptional show at the 2018 edition where she returned with four gold medals. However, the Delhi girl couldn’t live up to the billing and returned empty-handed.
She knew something had to change. When she lost the National Games semifinal to Sutirtha Mukherjee in September, she decided to make that change.
The change came in the form of a new coach. It wasn’t working out with Germany’s Chris Pfeiffer, and so, she asked her old friend Aman Balgu who runs his TT academy in Hyderabad, if he was up for a challenge. Balgu jumped at the opportunity.
The results came almost instantly. Just 10 days after appointing Balgu as coach, Manika went for the Asian Cup in November where she created history, becoming the first Indian woman to win a medal at the tournament, beating then World No. 6 Hina Hayata of Japan and China’s World No. 7 Chen Xingtong en route to the bronze medal.
It kept getting better. After the turn of the year, she notched up some really impressive wins on the WTT circuit, reaching the semifinals of the WTT Doha Contender and quarterfinals of the Nova Gorica (Slovenia) Contender. Impressively, she also reached the mixed doubles semifinal in both those tournaments, partnering with G Sathiyan.
Those stellar performances saw her reach a career-high ranking of 33 and more importantly, gave her renewed confidence. At the WTT Star Contender in Panaji, she made it to the pre-quarterfinal stage before bowing out to China’s World No. 20 Qian Tianyi.
Back to basics
So what exactly has Balgu worked on with her that has seen such a drastic change? “We had to work on the basics,” he told The Indian Express after her match on Friday. “When I say basics, I mean that I had to remind her why she’s been such a winner and has had such tremendous results. She was feeling down after the Commonwealth Games and needed to regain that confidence.”
The other key difference, Balgu says, is bringing only positivity, be it during training or during her matches. And Manika has begun to feel the difference.
“My mindset has improved a lot. There isn’t a huge change in technique but the confidence level is completely different. I am calmer now while playing (matches). He likes to motivate, so that’s made me believe I can beat any player now,” Manika said.
While the change in her mental space provided a huge boost, Balgu saw that opponents have started to figure out Manika’s game which is why she wasn’t doing so well.
Manika has always played with a long-pimpled rubber on the backhand, allowing her to slow the game down before finding the right opportunity to unleash her thunderous forehand. While the long-pimpled rubber, which produces an opposite spin, is commonly used, Manika’s strength was that she could switch it during rallies to confuse the opponent. At the highest level, however, it becomes difficult to switch the grip when the opponent is constantly attacking.
Balgu told Manika that being World No. 33 was alright, but to crack the top-20, she had to switch up her game. The solution for him was simple – instead of defending with the backhand pimples, Manika had to try and attack with it.
And they are just starting to reap the rewards of that change. While she wasn’t able to switch it up against Tianyi on Friday, her stunning 3-1 (11-9, 11-8, 5-11, 11-8) win over World No. 14 Adriana Diaz of Puerto Rico on Thursday was a classic example of the strategy. Diaz just didn’t expect Manika to attack with the backhand, and was completely foxed.
“People say that there are more limitations to me playing with long pimples at the highest level but soon they will see how I can switch it up. We’re working very hard at this, though the main component of my game will not change, and that is to keep confusing the opponent,” she said.
Confusing her opponent definitely has been the key to her success all along but that goes hand-in-hand with spontaneity. It’s something Balgu doesn’t mind and says that while it’s definitely something she relies on, she needed to develop proper strategies to beat the best in the world which was lacking.
And Manika is willing to do whatever it takes to beat the best. “I’m satisfied but being in the 30s (ranking) is good enough for now. I have set my eyes on breaking into the top-20 this year and I will continue to work hard towards achieving this goal,” she said.