Paddler Sutirtha Mukherjee charts road to Tokyo from dark alley of ban

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Sutirtha Mukherjee lets out a chuckle as she begins to recall her reaction to securing a Tokyo Olympics berth.

“I couldn’t believe it, and I was crying, then I called up my mother to tell her. She couldn’t believe it either,” Sutirtha says over the phone, amidst laughter. “It’s a feeling I have never felt before. It’s something every table tennis player dreams about. I played at the 2014 Youth Olympics, now I’m going for the big one.”

Sutirtha came from behind to beat India’s highest-ranked woman paddler Manika Batra 4-2 (7-11, 11-7, 11-4, 4-11, 11-5, 11-4) in the Asian qualifiers at Doha, Qatar last week to clinch her Olympic spot. It helped the World No. 98 earn a fourth singles quota for India in table tennis – after Achanta Sharath Kamal and Gnanasekaran Sathiyan won it in the men’s event, and Batra qualified through her rank. But the win over her compatriot, ranked 62nd in the world, has opened a new door for her.

It wasn’t the first time Sutirtha beat her much-fancied compatriot, nor the first time a win over Manika added a spring in her step. But to understand the significance of that first win, one must rewind to 2015.

Early setback

The 25-year-old was among a group of players that had been banned for a year by the national federation in 2015 for an age-fudging offence. The budding player from Naihati, West Bengal could have easily gone into a shell, but for her mother.

“She never played the sport in her time, so she saw herself playing through me. That’s why she forced me to start playing when I was six,” Sutirtha told The Indian Express in an earlier interview.

“(During the ban) she forced me to train every day, do fitness, gym work… she even tried to simulate tournament-like conditions during practice matches in the local club. Basically, she told me that I have to win each match because it’s ‘a final’.”

On her return to the circuit, she travelled to Ranchi to compete in the Nationals. Steadily, Sutirtha progressed through each round before beating Manika in the final.

“I was aggressive that entire tournament because I needed to win it,” says Sutirtha, who now represents Haryana in the Nationals. “I wanted everyone to know that, though I wasn’t there, I was still training and working hard. And that I am meant to play this sport.”

Steady progress

She’s become a mainstay of the national team since then, winning a gold medal in the team event of the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

And she’s risen up the ranking ladder remarkably – Sutirtha was 502 in 2019 and is currently in the top 100 with a playing style to match that rise.

“She is very aggressive and stands close to the table,” explains 2008 Olympian Neha Aggarwal. “She plays her shots early, so that reduces the reaction time an opponent has.”

Sutirtha’s coach, Arjuna Awardee Soumyadeep Roy – with whom she trains in Jadavpur – says that she “has very quick hands and good reflexes. She forces the opponent to play the game she wants to play.”

Then there is the short pimpled rubber on the forehand that adds another dimension to her skills. The pimpled rubber changes speed and spin (topspin or backspin) in a returned shot and can be a tricky rubber to play with or against. But Sutirtha hasn’t just learned to master the use of it, she’s started to innovate.

“I’ve started to switch it (pimpled rubber on one side of her bat and a flat rubber on the other) mid-rally to add variations,” she says. “I had started working on it when I started training after the lockdown. It’s worked very well for me.”

Focus on fitness

Work on the table only started once restrictions eased around June last year. But during the lockdown forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sutirtha could only work on improving her fitness.

“I have a balcony at home. So every day, I’d put a laptop on a chair while on a call with my coach and a physical trainer and did the fitness work,” she adds.

“Lockdown meant a greater focus on fitness, which is something you don’t get to do that often because you’re travelling and have to keep practising your strokes as well. Now I’m feeling quite good.”

Two 90-minute fitness sessions per day kept Sutirtha in shape and ready to start training at the table as soon as it was deemed safe enough. But now that the Olympic Games have made a welcome entry into her calendar, she will have to chalk out a new training regimen.

“There’s still a lot of potential to improve the fitness,” says Roy, who has been working with her for seven years. “We’ll have to sit down and make a plan. Maybe we’ll train here, or go abroad to prepare, we’ll have to see.”

Roy was with the paddler in her darkest days, and will now see her compete at the biggest event in the sport. He remembers telling her to handle the period of the ban like it was an injury.

“Sometimes a player will have to go through surgery and it will take a while before you get back. So I told her to treat it like that and be ready to bounce back,” Roy says.

“And you can see her character. Now she’s in the top 100, and going to the Olympics.”





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