New Delhi: While entering the lobby of a Noida hotel on Thursday evening, Manika Batra was met with an unusual request from a 40-year-old man.
“He congratulated me and asked for a video message for his daughters. I was surprised and didn’t know what to say," says Batra. “But I could understand how things have changed. People have started looking up to me as a role model. I am overwhelmed but I know this is just the beginning."
Batra received a rousing reception at the Delhi airport on Tuesday on her return from Australia, “similar", she says, “to that of a Saina Nehwal or a P.V. Sindhu welcome". Table tennis players in India are not used to this and so the experience at the airport was quite overwhelming for her.
If Batra were a country, she would have finished among the top 20 nations at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast that ended on Sunday. The 22-year-old table tennis player from Delhi won four medals in a week, including two golds, and emerged as the find of the Games.
Like most athletes, Batra too had to struggle in her formative years. She lost in the quarter-finals of the 2014 Glasgow Games and didn’t do too well at the Rio Olympics, but those events turned out to be major learning curves.
“I started planning and training harder after those defeats," says Batra. “Today, I practise 3-4 hours every morning and evening."
Batra always wanted to be famous and be seen on television. But she turned down several modelling offers as a teenager. “I love modelling but I want to win more medals. Modelling is easier to get fame but opportunity for winning a gold medal comes only once in a four-year cycle," says Batra.
Batra also had to drop out of college to pursue table tennis. “There was never a confusion about that choice," she says. “Many great athletes who have achieved something big have not been able to focus on studies. And I am delighted that I made the right decision."
Sandeep Gupta, who has coached Batra since she was a four-year-old, believes the government’s Target Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme helped her immensely. “The TOP scheme helped her a lot in getting world-class training and exposure," he says. “We collected the data and went to Japan’s national training centre and visited top European centres as well. That training is now showing results."
“I still need to work a lot on my fitness to compete with the best (Chinese and Japanese)," says Batra. “The game has become faster than ever." The next challenge is the World Team Championships in Sweden from 29 April and the Asian Games that start in August.
She hopes her medals turn around the fortunes of table tennis, just like Nehwal’s and Sindhu’s did for badminton. “I hope it makes table tennis more popular in India," says Batra.
When she dropped out of college, she wanted to win medals for the country. And that hunger has increased after the Gold Coast Games. The tricolour, she says, keeps inspiring her. “A lot of people have asked me why my nails are painted like the Indian flag and I tell them every time I was serving, I was getting inspired by my tricolour."