The Indian pair faced a tough challenge from the North Korean team of Cha and Pak, ultimately succumbing after a valiant battle.
After plotting the greatest victory of their respective careers against China’s world champions, Sutirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee turned up for the women’s doubles semi-finals against Cha Suyong and Pak Sugyong winning the first four points to set off a promising start. Could a historic assured silver medal really be in sight?
After dragging the North Koreans to a decider while blowing them away in the sixth game, Sutirtha and Ayhika turned up for the seventh game losing the first four points to meet an anticlimactic end. A historic bronze medal, nonetheless, was firmly in pocket.
The nail-biting clash
The Mukherjees signed off from this Asian Games losing the semi-finals to Cha and Pak 3-4 (11-7, 8-11, 11-7, 8-11, 9-11, 11-5, 2-11), dishing out another fighting display on the back of a phenomenal victory against Chinese second seeds Cheng Meng and Wang Yidi in the quarters-finals.
The Mukherjees will check out from Hangzhou with a bronze, Indian table tennis’ first medal in women’s doubles at Asian Games and only the third ever. That’s quite an addition to their CVs, and quite a turnaround from three months ago when the pair wasn’t selected for the World Championships.
“For a couple of hours after the match, they were a little down, because they believed they could’ve pulled it off. But eventually, they realised they won a medal at Asian Games. For them and Indian TT, it’s huge,” said Soumyadeep Roy, who coaches them along with Poulami Ghatak at their academy.
Having achieved the seemingly improbable of beating the Chinese in China, Roy told the two to enjoy a quiet celebration on Saturday night, but forget about it on Sunday to tune in for what’s to come on Monday.
Tuned in they were, the backhand block by Ayhika forcing the Koreans to err at the net off the opening point. The combination of Ayhika’s anti-spin backhand rubber and Sutirtha’s attacking finishes troubled the world No. 2 Chinese pair, and was asking questions of the the North Koreans too.
There were two key differences, however, between the matches. The North Korean pair, much like the Mukherjees to the Chinese, was equally unheralded and this was a best-of-seven encounter as opposed to the best-of-five quarters.
The Koreans, thus, found the answers and their groove in the second game and, despite Sutirtha ramping up her attacking game to take the third, won the fourth and fifth extracting errors off the Indians’ less lethal forehand side.
“The fourth and fifth game, they could have been a little bit more aggressive,” Roy said.
Losing those two tight games, the Indians freed up in the sixth and flew to a 6-1 lead, their bread-and-butter combination working smoothly again. But once they “started bad”, as Roy put it, in the deciding game, the Koreans and their forehands breathing fire again weren’t going to let them back in.
“We were a little nervous in the last game and they attacked well,” said Sutirtha.
“It was a pressure match, and it happens,” Roy said. “But both Ayhika and Sutirtha fought brilliantly. So, nothing much to complain.”
The match made people sit up and take notice
They could cherish, instead, what they pulled off in Hangzhou over the last week. With little backing at that. Both Ayhika and Sutirtha are not part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) — the latter was dropped after the Tokyo Games — and struggle to find sponsors to help fund their travel for tournaments on the WTT tour. The Dhanuka Dhunseri group, also behind their Dhanuka Dhunseri Soumyadeep Poulomi TT Academy, has now promised to fund the two for a year until the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Things might change further for the Mukherjees, flying largely under the radar amid Indian TT’s surge over the last few years, having made people sit up and take notice now. And having answered an oft-repeated question.
“TT mein hum log hamesha se yahi sunte aaye hai: China ko kab harayenge (We have always been hearing this question: when will we beat China)?” Roy said. “They did that, in China.”
Disclaimer: Except the headline and synopsis, this story has been taken from the HT News Service.