Unshakeable bond behind table tennis duo Ayhika-Sutirtha’s bronze- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

HANGZHOU: No jedi mind trick is happening at the GSP Gymnasium on Monday afternoon. The Indian women’s table tennis team of Ayhika Mukherjee and Sutirtha Mukherjee are really two games away from the final. No Indian table tennis player, pair or team have managed to win two games in the semifinals ever. This is already uncharted territory (A Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra managed one game in 2018).

But the childhood friends, who went to the same TT club when they were still learning multiplication tables in school, are wondering what the fuss is all about. A partisan crowd — Indian players have not felt the love from the hosts in Hangzhou — are cheering for the North Korean duo of Suyong Cha and Sugyong Pak. A service error is celebrated. At another point, a joke in the local language elicits lots of laughter. The crowd wants the North Koreans to win and do not pretend otherwise.

But the World No 16 aren’t just leading 11-7, 8-11, 11-7. They are not facing too many problems. Fresh from dumping China’s Meng Chen and Yidi Wang, World No 2 and one of the favourites for gold, in front of their own crowd, they are on course to repeat the magic. The magic has given India only their third medal in the sport at the Asian Games but there is an opportunity to upgrade bronze to silver.

North Korea won the next two games. Trailing the match for the first time courtesy of a few winners from the opposition, the Indians are now under pressure to respond under demand. That’s when Sutirtha goes back to her trusted attacking backhand shots. After two of them find the sweet spot, they take the lead 3-1. They build on that lead to win the sixth game 11-5. Decider.

After blocking a tad too much in the first five games, the Indian duo had decided to finish the points if and when an opportunity presented itself. It worked in the sixth. In the seventh, they were on the receiving end; they were too loose and conceded a big lead. 1-7. The conviction in their game plan had deserted them and they were going for too many Hollywood winners or ill-judged passing shots.

But at a multi-discipline event like the Asian Games, not all bronze medals — or gold — are equal. In a sport like table tennis, coming third in Asia is no mean feat. So, how did they medal? Welcome to the mystical world of rubbers, an unshakeable bond that has existed for over 20 years and a partnership that has the potential to perplex the best.

Coach Mamata Prabhu, who was on the Indian bench, explains. “Both of them come from the same place, Naihati,” she says. “So the friendship goes back 20 years. They know each other so well. That’s where the bonding is really strong. Regarding the partnership, this year they won the WTT contender, only the second Indian women’s team to do it. After that, we were confident that these girls have a particular game. They have different rubbers — Suthirtha has pimpled rubber on her forehand and plain on the backhand. Ayhika has pimpled on the forehand and anti (spin) on the backhand. It’s quite a difficult combination with four different rubbers for opponents. That’s what makes the opponents… they can have so many variations, you cannot judge.”

This plan may be simple but to watch it pan out in real time was fascinating. Sutirtha took the role of the aggressor but it worked only because Ayhika’s blocking game was highly effective. Even the way they blocked was frustrating the North Koreans who are perhaps used to playing with more pace. Even the way the ball behaved off the sheer black table was a lesson in the traits of different rubbers. For example, one seemingly innocuous North Korean push spat off the sheer table as if it was an Indian Day Three pitch. On another occasion, Sutirtha got the ball spin as well as grip.

The pair explained how they use it to their advantage. “When I attack, she defends with her rubber well so that was our strategy,” Sutirtha said. “She uses an anti-spin rubber which is tougher to use because it’s different from normal rubbers. I use a backhand plain rubber. On the forehand, I use the Dr. Neubauer Gorilla killer pimpled rubber.

“It feels surreal to win this medal but it could have been better but we are happy with what we have and will look to change the colour next time.”

While Mamata conceded that her wards were a bit too passive in the opening games on Monday, she said the next challenge for them would be to add more weapons to their kitty. “We will try to build more patterns and more variations in their game and be fitter and faster.” 

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