From the time when the women’s cricket team had to wear the men’s jerseys on the field, and female table-tennis players were unheard of, to a time when female sports players are winning laurels for the nation in nearly every sport, India has come a long way, bringing some of the most talented sportspeople to the forefront. One such name is Manika Batra, India’s rising table tennis star. Born and raised in Delhi, Batra took to the game as a four-year-old, and hasn’t stopped since. She takes pride in representing her country and working hard each day and we can’t help but be inspired. She recently created history by becoming the first female to win a bronze medal at the Asia Cup and is now world no 35, a career-high for her. Here’s what the never-give-up girl had to say when she spoke to Cosmo India about her journey and more.
Cosmopolitan India: What was it like growing up and how important is the support from friends and family, especially when you choose something like sports?
Manika Batra: I started when I was four years old. My sister also used to play, and my family was always supportive when we started playing. My sister played table tennis at national level, but didn’t play at international tournaments. So, with me, they were extra supportive and encouraging—always there for me. Maybe they saw something in me. I think such external support is really important in every athlete's life, and I'm lucky and thankful that my family and friends were supportive, not only in the initial stages, but also till date. Of course, now, we have additional support from fans, the government, sponsors…I am really grateful to have them in my life, because you always need someone to be there for you; you cannot just wake up one day and be a sportsperson..
Cosmpolitan India: How did you navigate your way as a female sports player in a male-dominated space?
Manika Batra: To be honest, before, there were a number of challenges, but today, I see a big change. If you see, female athletes are winning medals in Olympics—PV Sindhu, Mary Kom. There are so many women athletes who are winning. So, I don’t want to differentiate between men and women, but now, women are really growing, and they're coming to the forefront. I am really happy about it. Recently, PT Usha ma’am became the president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), but, what happens at the grassroot level is very important in this—families need to be supportive and encouraging from childhood. Sometimes, families don’t want their daughters to play either because they don’t feel it is safe or because of societal pressure. Today, even that is changing.
Cosmopolitan India: Were there any challenges that you faced as a female player? How did you overcome them?
Manika Batra: Of course there were challenges. But when I was a kid, my family was like my shield—even if there were challenges, they never let it touch me. I was given the chance to just play and focus on my sport. So, I'm really lucky in that sense. But, I’m sure my mother was at the receiving end of a lot of comments like nahi hoga (it’s not going to happen), sports mein nahi jaana chahiye (she shouldn’t pursue sports), and so on. My mother didn’t let any of these things affect me and my game. And my approach is, just keep working hard and not think about anything else.
Cosmopolitan India: You have also been through that whole gamut of comments—about your looks, hair, make-up, nails, all of that. Did that ever affect you? Did you think that these comments are actually taking away the attention from your game?
Manika Batra: To be honest, I think people know me because of table tennis, so, I feel really lucky about that. It has been my dream to take table tennis to that level for young girls and boys to know and play the sport. Besides that, I’m okay with comments on my pictures; I like to dress up, so, I think it is okay. And people know me only because of table tennis, and I think they will continue to know me as Manika Batra—the table tennis player.
Cosmopolitan India: How has the sports scene changed for young girls and what do you think should be done to encourage it?
Manika Batra: If and when I meet a family, I would tell them to let their daughters do whatever they want and pursue their goal and dreams. I would tell them not to stop their daughters from doing anything, because that really matters. There are enough people who want to see girls fail, so, family support is extremely important for them. As far as the government goes, it was never that it did not support us, but of late, the government and many organisations have become increasingly supportive to female players. Though I think, they need to be given the backing when they start and not after they win medals.
Cosmopolitan India: Who were the players that you looked up to when you were growing up?
Manika Batra: Sachin Tendulkar, Mary Kom—there are so many players out there that I look up to because they have achieved laurels for India. My favourite sportspersons are Ronaldo and Virat Kohli. Though I don’t really follow football, I watch a lot of videos of the two—the way they talk and what they say—there are so many things I relate to. It helps me motivate myself.
Cosmopolitan India: How important is the conversation around mental health and sport today?
Manika Batra: I feel mental health is important for every athlete. I have seen many players talking about this. For my game, it's really important as it's very quick game of points. One needs to be extremely calm. Recently, when I played Asia Cup, all my matches had such close margins, but I played like a fighter—you have to. Staying calm really helped me win every match. The thing is, life has its ups and downs, so, you have to remain calm and just keep going. Never give up.
Cosmopolitan India: How do you deal with losses?
Manika Batra: Of course, I feel upset and frustrated after losing a game. But after a point, I remind myself that it’s not over and it is not the end. After Commonwealth Games this year, I took a lot of pressure. But then I just thought it's not over and it is okay. You have to keep going and trust your process. And that really helped me during the Asia Cup. I think every athlete’s attitude is to never give up. So, when I lose, I like to play the next game to improve and rectify the mistakes that I made previously.
Cosmopolitan India: Do you get nervous before every match? And how do you overcome those jitters?
Manika Batra: Of course I get nervous, I’m only human. Before every match, I sit down in a quiet place, practice deep breathing and listen to music. Even after this, when I step onto the court, the nervousness is still there, but then you just have to trust your training and go there and play fiercely. It happened to me recently at the Asia Cup where I was feeling that pressure, but when I was on the court, I was fully there, focused.
Cosmopolitan India: What's on your playlist right now?
Manika Batra: I listen to a lot of Punjabi music, so Diljit Dosanj and others.
Cosmopolitan India: What keeps you going? And what are your goals in the near future?
Manika Batra: I think the love for the game keeps me going. I thoroughly enjoy the sport. In the near future, my goal is to be among the top 10 players in the world. So, I just want to keep working hard and win as many medals as I can for my country.