Tokyo Olympics: Bitter-sweet day for paddlers yet again

Manika Batra RioNew Delhi: It was yet another bitter-sweet day for India at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.  The morning began with hope when A. Sharath Kamal beat an in-form Tiago Apolonia from Portugal 4-2 (2-11, 11-8, 11-5, 9-11, 11-6, 11-9) to enter the third round of the men’s singles event. But soon, it was time for the second Indian paddler, Sutirtha Mukherjee, to make her exit in the second round. She lost in straight games (3-11, 3-11, 5-11, 5-11) to the 42-year-old Fu Yu, also from Portugal.

Later in the day, Manika Batra followed suit to join the exodus. The Indian, who had a dream run in the second round against Ukraine’s Margaryta Pesotska on Sunday, went down 8-11, 2-11, 5-11, 7-11 to Sofia Polcanova of Austria without a whimper. G. Sathiyan had exited yesterday after his first-round loss.

Sharath, as usual, began sluggishly only to pick steam from the second game onwards. Probably, it is the veteran’s way to go about it as he took his time to size up his opponent. Tiago, with his aggressive start, opened up a solid lead against Sharath taking complete control. Sharath was guilty of not being able to receive and let his opponent dominate.

But the 39-year-old pulled himself up in the nick of time taking the second game after Tiago saved two game points. In the third, it was all easy for the Indian, ranked 32 in the world. Despite being back in his groove, Sharath was up and down in the fourth. The Portuguese seized a few crucial moments in the game with effective forehands, leveling the score 2-2.

However, the 20th-seeded Indian served better and hitting deceptive forehands wrapped up the fifth game in double-quick time. And then an error-prone Sharath let his opponent lead in the sixth before hitting rhythm and winning the game with minimal points to go through. The Indian has a difficult job at hand in the third round tomorrow. He faces the defending champion and second-seed Chinese Ma Long. The Indian veteran has played Ma four times—twice in men’s singles and twice in team events—between 2007 and 2019. But it is the Chinese paddler who holds a 4-0 record against the Indian.  

Sutirtha could not put her act together against the Portuguese veteran as the Indian girl found it hot to handle. World No. 55 was in the business straight away, opening a sizeable lead and finishing in style, allowing the Indian mere three points. There was no respite for Sutirtha, nor could we see any change in her strategy.  So much so, the writing on the wall was clear, and her opponent ended the Indian’s ordeal sooner than later.

Manika knew it was not going to be easy against world No. 17 Sofia. The attacking and offensive left-hander began well with Manika matching her stroke for stroke. But the powerful forehand topspins of the left-hander left Manika fending more often than not. Yet, it was creditable that the Indian, way behind in ranking to her opponent, closed in at 8-9. After that, it went only one way as Sofia took the game.

The finish to the second was even quicker as Manika struggled to land her forehands that helped her against Margaryta, putting the Austrian in an unassailable position of 8-2. She didn’t look back and kept mounting pressure on Manika to win comfortably. Though Manika took a 2-0 lead in the third game, Sofia was up to her task and surged to close it 11-5. The fourth, now a formality, turned exactly that way despite Manika putting up a brave front to come two points adrift of her opponent at 7-9. But the end came too soon, and the 25-year-old Sofia completed her job in 27 minutes flat.