Manika Batra: fame for the game
Fame always appeared destined to find Manika Batra: it could have been on a catwalk, or in the pages of a magazine.
But instead she decided to follow a sporting dream - and it is for her table tennis exploits that India knows her.
The 24-year-old has become a household name courtesy of her exploits at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, becoming the first Indian woman to win a gold medal in a table tennis singles event.
The recognition accompanying such an achievement has been enormous: the Delhi-born star has had to get used to requests for photos wherever she goes.
But her rise to prominence could have taken a very different path.
The turning point in Batra's life came when she was 16-years-old.
Up until that point, she had been combining her sport and studies along with modelling work.
But now something would have to give: Batra needed to devote her attention to one aspect. Trying to balance all three was an impossible task.
It was then that the man who mentored her career from an early age helped advise her on the route to take.
Born in Delhi as the youngest of three children, Manika’s interest in table tennis grew by watching her elder siblings.
Her sister, Aanchal was particularly good and trained at the academy run by Sandeep Gupta – who would eventually go on to train Manika for almost two decades.
Following a decent showing in an under-8 state-level tournament, Manika too started training under Gupta, with the two developing a stellar partnership that would propel her into the limelight of professional table tennis.
It was Gupta, along with her mother, who helped Batra decide that table tennis should be her primary focus and that her studies - along with her modelling offers - would have to take a back seat.
Making of Manika
After years of grit and perseverance under the mentorship of Gupta, Manika first made headlines in 2011, winning the silver medal in the under-21 category at the Chile Open. Three years later, the then teenager competed valiantly at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Although settling for a quarterfinal finish, Manika had announced herself by demonstrating some jaw-dropping defensive skills, possessing equal use of both the backhand and forehand.
2015 would prove to be her payback for the disappointments at the Games, as she won three medals at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships including a bronze in the women’s singles event.
Three more medals followed at the 2016 South Asian Games, where she won the women’s doubles event with Pooja Sahasrabudhe and the mixed doubles event with Anthony Amalraj. She could have added a fourth in the women’s singles event, but narrowly lost out to Mouma Das in the finals.
With the weight of expectations riding on her shoulders and form to back it up, the 20-year-old entered the 2016 Rio Olympics only to make an early exit in the first round of the women’s singles event. Poland’s Katarzyna Grzybowska defeated her quite comfortably and delivered a lesson that would change her career for the better.
Two years later at the 2018 Commonwealth Games held in Gold Coast, Australia, Manika was the showstopper of the Indian women’s team as they pulled off a giant upset to win gold against defending champions Singapore.
To put that victory into perspective, it’s important to note that the Singapore women’s table tennis team had never lost since the event was inducted into the Games back in 2002.
Meanwhile, in the women’s singles category, Manika defeated Yu Mengyu of Singapore to become the first Indian woman to bag a Commonwealth gold in an individual table tennis event. She finished with a tally of four medals, including two golds at the Games.
Later that year, Manika also claimed a mixed doubles bronze with Achanta Sharath Kamal at the Jakarta Asian Games.
Split with Gupta
Ever since she learnt the nitty-gritty of professional tennis table and what it means to carry India’s baton at major events, Manika always had the guidance and helping hand of Gupta.
Earlier this year though, the 24-year-old decided to part ways with her long-time coach and head to Pune to train under Sanmay Paranjape.
It's not just with the bat that Batra applies some eye-catching finishing touches.
At the Commonwealth Games, the paddler had her nails painted with the Indian tricolour and frequently has colourful designs on display.
Recently, she has taken to wearing a pendant and earring set with a table tennis motif.
But the biggest statement Batra wants to make is with her results.
Having broke into the top 50 earlier in 2019, the Indian has her sights set on establishing herself amongst the elite of her sport - with the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo a key target in mind.
Do not be deceived by her kind and playful personality: underneath lies a steely determination.
As has been shown throughout her life, Batra is not afraid to take difficult decisions in order to drive towards success.