Manika Batra, India’s table tennis champ, has all the stamina and charisma of a sportsperson. Despite starting a practice session early in the morning around 6 (she’d have been up earlier to start at that hour) she’s bright and chipper and full of jokes and ready to talk about anything.
On the campus of Hansraj Model School in Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh, inside the school’s auditorium-turned-table tennis academy India’s ace Table Tennis champ, the 23-year-old is in full throttle against Shivjit Singh Lamba, a junior player of international repute. The mood is ebullient with sparks of aggression and competition that accompany the toc-toc sound of the flying ball and loud sighs that follow the hits and misses as coach Sandeep Gupta shouts words of praise or caution. The woman who so recently won the nation four straight medals across categories at the Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast, is a delight to watch as she makes lightening fast moves in her her practice session.
The 58th best TT player in the world is obsessed with winning every imaginable TT title there is. She raised the collective consciousness of the nation about table tennis, a lesser-known sport in a country obsessed with cricket. But she has her quirks, too, some in part due to her sporty requirements. While she hopes to become ambidextrous one day, her left hand has beautifully manicured long nails while the ones on the right are blunt as pin heads.
I think it is better to binge watch Big Bang Theory than spend my mental energy thinking of things before a game; it's a good stress buster. But that don’t matter.
She’s frank and honest about her frailties and goof ups, laughing uproariously about her “most embarrassing moment to date. Just before the game was to begin at Gold Coast,” she reveals, “ I put on some music (Shape of You) and began grooving to it. I usually do that. It (helps me) unwind before a game; it’s a good stress buster. But little did I know that a hundred people were watching from the outside as I had forgotten to draw on the curtains of the room which was on the ground level,” she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “I wonder what they must have thought of me.”
Players go through enormous stress and it is essential to hold one’s own in the face of criticism. Manika simply watches her favourite TV show. “Well, I think it is better to binge watch Big Bang Theory than spend my mental energy thinking of things that don’t matter.” She bagged a job at Indian Oil as a tennis player and has since risen to the position of assistant manager. “I love the money that comes in, seriously,” she says with a twinkle. She fantasises about buying out her favourite Victoria’s Secret and wearing those outfits to London - her “favouritest” city. “I recently bought a bag from the brand for “Rs 35,000, which has also been my most expensive impromptu purchase till now.”
She fancies expensive cars, yearns to run a marathon, hike a mountain and loves Spain so much that she could visit it again and again. But more than anything, what she adores above everything else and can do any time and all the time is to dance. “I can dance my heart out all day and all night. I love it. It makes me free and very, very happy.” Nor can she live without ghar ke banaye chhole bhature.
Men fall in a separate category altogether. Traces of male chauvinistic attitudes from members of the opposite sex come through in her comments. “Men are too snobbish and can’t really get their heads around basic things such as knowing how to talk to a woman. But the one who’d really appeal (to me) will know how to behave. And he won’t have to make an effort, trust me, it would come to him naturally.”
Her vision through all this is clear: “Bring India a gold in the upcoming Olympics 2020.”