Panaji: India’s Sutirtha Mukherjee arrived in Panaji for the World Table Tennis (WTT) Star Contender Goa an emotional wreck. Just 10 days before the event, her grandmother, who she was really close to, passed away. She was distraught, but took courage knowing that her grandmother would want nothing more than for her to compete at the tournament and do well.
Physically, she never felt better. As far as her game was concerned, she was in excellent touch. She just had to put the emotional baggage at arm’s length.
She managed that and how! On Thursday, at the Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Indoor Stadium in Panaji, she beat World No. 18 Jia Nan Yuan of France 3-0 (11-7, 11-8, 11-7) in the Round of 32 to notch up the biggest-ever win in her career so far. Not just that, she’s the only Indian apart from Manika Batra alive in the tournament.
Batra, the top-ranked Indian woman, showed why she’s so highly rated, pulling off a stunning 3-1 (11-9, 11-8, 5-11, 11-8) win over World No. 14 Adriana Diaz of Puerto Rico.
Being overlooked for a wildcard direct entry into the main draw of the first WTT event being held in the country meant that Sutirtha, whose current WTT ranking is 147, had to really grind out in qualifying.
After a relatively easy 3-0 (11-3 11-6, 11-7) first-round win over compatriot Prapti Sen, Sutirtha faced World No. 92 Li Yu-Jhun. The Taipei paddler kept it tight but Sutirtha had found her rhythm and managed to pull off a 3-0 (11-9, 11-8, 11-6) win. In her final round of qualifying, she grinded out a 3-1 win over World No. 110 Lee Eunhye of Korea and had clearly warmed up enough.
After dispatching compatriot Suhana Saini 3-1 in the Rd of 64, Sutirtha knew that she would have to do something incredible to beat 37-year-old Frenchwoman Yuan. She was ready to suffer.
Suffering is something Sutirtha has become used to. The whole debacle ahead of the Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021) where Manika accused then-India coach Soumyadeep Roy of asking her to lose a match against Sutirtha, who he also coached personally (and still does) took a toll on her.
The fallout of that combined with a crunched national circuit meant that Sutirtha’s ranking dropped drastically during the pandemic. The result of that was her failure to make the Indian team for the Commonwealth Games held in Birmingham last year.
She took it in her stride. According to Roy, lack of funds meant that she couldn’t compete in international tournaments on the WTT circuit. But she kept practicing and that was quite evident at the National Games last September where she beat Batra in the semifinal and then outplayed national champion Sreeja Akula in the final to triumph.
“She did well in the zonal and other tournaments too but it was just the lack of funds why she couldn’t play in better tournaments abroad,” Roy said on Thursday.
Not playing in those tournaments too was a blessing in disguise says Roy who had more time to train her.
“That continuous training has elevated her game. She’s clearly a fighter and it can only get better from here,” he said, with the Asian Games later this year on his mind.
World No. 1 stunned
In what was the most shocking result of the day, World No. 193 Cho Daeseong of Korea beat World No. 1 and Olympic silver medallist Fan Zhendong 3-2 (7-11, 6-11, 12-10, 11-9, 11-8).
The Chinese paddler looked certain of victory, after easily wrapping up the first two games but Daeseong staged one of the most improbable comebacks to take the third into a tie-breaker before winning it and the next two games.
“He (Zhendong) is very strong but I just thought I had nothing to lose after trailing 0-2, so I just thought of going into an all-attacking mode,” the Korean said after the match.
“This is the best win of my career, so I’m very happy. When I was leading 8-1 in the decider, I thought maybe I can win but from 10-5 when it became 10-8, I was a little nervous. My heart was pumping. Thankfully I could close it out.”
Disappointment for Indians
Apart from Manika in women’s singles, India’s biggest hopes at this tournament were G Sathiyan in the men’s singles and the Manika-Sathiyan duo in the mixed doubles. However, India’s top-ranked paddler Sathiyan’s tournament ended with a shocking 0-3 (9-11, 5-11, 8-11) loss to World No. 22 Yukiya Uda of Japan.
Sathiyan-Manika, who were favourites against the Japanese duo of Togami Shunsuke and Harimoto Miwa, offered little resistance in their straight-game (10-12, 6-11, 6-11) loss.