To understand the genius of Manika Batra, one has to go back to the time she was eight years old. She may be the ‘Golden Girl’ of Indian table tennis now after her feats at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia where she won four medals – two gold, one silver and a bronze – but as an eight-year-old who showed plenty of promise, she was asked to change her bat and essentially, her entire playing style.
The story goes that her then coach Sandeep Gupta asked her to start playing with long-pimpled rubber on one side of her bat. He felt that this would elevate her game further. And it did just that.
Long-pimpled rubber is essentially a defensive selection seldom used by the elite pros these days. It basically puts the opposite effect on the spin that the opponent plays. So say, if the opponent plays a backspin shot, when one returns with this rubber, the ball will have topspin and vice-versa.
How does this happen? It’s because the surface of a long-pimpled rubber is covered with thin and tall conical-shaped bumps. When the ball meets the rubber, those bumps bend, thereby putting the opposite effect on the spin of the ball.
Using the rubber on her backhand side, she switches her bat mid-rally to deceive opponents. The follow-up shot after using the pimpled rubber is extremely crucial and that’s where Manika’s big forehand comes into play.
It was this strategy that helped her win the women’s singles title at the last Commonwealth Games and also lead the women’s team to their first-ever CWG gold. It’s the same strategy that saw her achieve her career-best ranking of 38 in May this year.
When playing singles, the effectiveness of the pimpled rubber boils down to knowing when to use it, how well one uses it and most importantly, how one plays the follow-up shot. Doubles, on the other hand, throws up a very challenging situation, especially if the partner doesn’t normally play with long pimples.
And that’s the challenge for India at the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
While Manika is the favourite for the women’s singles title, her mixed doubles partner is G Sathiyan and her women’s doubles partner is 19-year-old Diya Chitale, who’s playing in her first mega event.
Both Sathiyan and Chitale play with attacking rubbers so they have to understand Manika’s game extremely well in order to know when she’ll switch her bat and use the pimpled rubber.
Sathiyan and Manika won the bronze medal in Gold Coast and he says that both of them have elevated their games tremendously since then, be it in singles or as doubles partners.
Though Sathiyan has never used long pimples, he told The Indian Express that it’s extremely useful to partner someone who uses it.
“Having your partner in mixed doubles use the long pimples is useful because not many, especially the men’s players, are used to it. So, it brings out a different flavour for us on the table. We use it to change strategies or to mix up the pace.
“We use the pimple, which slows downs the pace, and then use the soft rubber which increases the pace. This has been very handy to make our opponents move back and forth,” he said.
Sathiyan, currently ranked 37th in the world, said that his understanding of the science behind pimpled rubber has helped him succeed with Manika.
“My understanding of the rubber is really good and so I could make decisions with Manika on that front. The follow-up shot is very crucial and so I have to know when she’s going to use it. If the ball is too fast and the opponent is far away from the table, she could probably use the rubber to make them move back and forth,” he said.
“We have practised many combinations of both the rubbers. It requires a lot of practice and understanding,” the 29-year-old said.
Believing they can do much better than their bronze at the last CWG, Sathiyan and Manika decided to work together and develop a great understanding to take their game to the next level. When asked what are the aspects they worked on, Sathiyan said they realised it was imperative they worked on their footwork.
“For doubles, footwork has to be quite different. We worked a lot on that during our training camps in Chennai and Bengaluru. We needed to have a better understanding of where we are moving and more importantly, making way for our partner to come to the table. Moving in a synchronised manner is very critical.”
Not only them, their respective coaches too worked together to chalk out a plan for them.
“Our coaches know our strengths and weaknesses better. Their inputs really helped us understand each other’s games well. And that’s the most important thing in doubles,” he said.
If Sathiyan and Manika have a deep understanding of each other’s games, Manika and Diya have barely partnered with each other, having just one session in Mumbai last week.
Diya, however, said they’ve got along very well.
“Although we did just one session, it was really good. We were moving well. Manika’s playing very aggressively now so for me it’s just knowing when she’s going to use the long rubber. Having played against quite a few opponents who use the long rubber, I know what to do with the next ball. I think it’s going to be a good debut for me,” Diya told The Indian Express.