In all the years that Achanta Sharath Kamal has played table tennis at the highest level, there was always something missing when he competed in mixed doubles. The 39-year-old is a power-player with a forehand that can open up the table that makes it easy for the partner to apply the finishing touch. That is, provided his partner has a strong finishing shot as well.
That was what was missing for him, until he paired up with Manika Batra at the 2018 Asian Games. Now, the pair is India’s best medal hope in table tennis.
The New Delhi-girl had worked hard, ahead of that competition in Jakarta, to bring in the extra power on her forehand that had earlier been ineffective. Now she had a shot that could put away the ball whenever Sharath’s lethal whacks opened up the door for her.
But the 26-year-old’s game isn’t a power-packed one by any means. Her playing style is all about deception, and it’s aided by the long pimple rubber – that changes the spin based on what the opponent played - she uses on one side of her paddle.
That element often leads the World No.54 to throw-off the opponent and bring out a weakened return. And then Sharath is always there to unleash another big forehand to finish the rally. Yet the power she now packs on her own forehand side is what has made India a medal contender in the mixed doubles event – that will be held at the Olympics for the first time.
And there's a good reason for that as well.
At the Asian Games they pulled off a miraculous 3-2 win over a fancied South Korean team that had then World No 7 Men’s player Sangsu Lee and Women’s No 21 Jihee Jeon. They then beat the North Koreans to make it to the semi-final where they lost to China. But that was enough for them to earn a historic bronze.
And then in March, at a qualification tournament in Doha, they beat the same high-ranked South Korean team to win the event that earned them a Tokyo berth in the mixed doubles. And with the deceptive dynamic that Batra brings to the team, the Indians are quietly confident.
“When Sharath hits his forehand, he opens up the opponent. But you need to have a partner who can hit the next shot with just as much power to finish off the rally,” 2008 Olympian Neha Aggarwal had told The Indian Express. “He’s never had that kind of partner for a while. But Manika’s new forehand complements his. She can match his intensity.”
Manika Batra and Sharath Kamal will be in action on July 24 when they take on the fifth-seeded Chinese Taipei pair of Cheng I Ching and Lin Yun Ju.