Sutheerth Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee are Asian Games bronze medalists. The first Indian women’s doubles team medal at this level. Fueled by one of the biggest upsets in Indian sporting history, it redefined the term impossible.
For now, though, thanks to Cha Suyoung and Pak Sugyong, the dream of the first Indian table tennis finalist(s) remains just a dream.
Outside of North Korea and in TT’s inner circles, these names may not mean much – they’re not in the ITTF rankings, neither is anyone else from their country – but that doesn’t mean anything. As they showed Monday morning, being unknown doesn’t mean they aren’t exceptional.
In a thrilling semi-final, they beat Mukherjee 4-3 (11-7, 8-11, 11-7, 8-11, 9-11, 11-5, 2-11) to set up a final date in the evening. Along with Jeon Jihee and Shin Yubin, neighbors from the south.
For Sutirtha and Ayhika, however, it is nowhere near the end of their road. The match, for the first six games, was a demonstration of what makes the two so good and why they should continue to play together.
Childhood friends who brilliantly read each other’s intentions (though, rather oddly, only recently started working as a duo), play to each other’s strengths. Ayhika’s backhand block, deep and full of variation and backspin, often sets up a difficult return for the opponent, enabling Sutheerth to bring that jackhammer of his backhand smash. And we saw that over and over on Monday.
The first game was won 11-7 on the back of Ayhika’s blocking and variation, and some brilliantly deceptive serving. The third game was again won 11-7, but this time on the strength of Sutirtha. Sutheerth has subtle sidespin on his backhand but apparently it’s all power, wrist work felt entirely by working himself into his shots.
The sixth match was arguably their best. Trailing 2-3, their coach Mamata Prabhu advised them to trust their backhands: ‘Run, run, backhand run’ ; And that’s what they did.
It started with three backhand slaps from Sutheerth (all on different parts of the table) and ended with a magical defensive slice from Ayhika. In between came the trademark set-up — Ayhika’s blocking a poor reply, Sutheerth killing the rally early — and Ayhika’s variation in defense on the front foot.
But that was as good as it got. The three matches that Cha Sooyoung and Pak Sooyoung won were dominated by their forehands before the decider – big, booming swipes that delivered a level of spin that Muttiah Muralitharan could only dream of.
But they were all close, especially game 5, where the two teams went toe-to-toe in attack and Cha had to bring a cross forehand out of nowhere to play.
In these three games, Cha and Pak attacked Mukherjee’s forehand, keeping the ball away from their strengths, making mistakes. There were great shots from them, including a frankly ridiculous push from the puck that looked straight until it suddenly bounced and spun in the face of an unsuspecting Ayhika.
That it still went so close is a testament to how much the Indians leaned on Coach Mamata.”Play Bindas“Philosophy. They took risks: when it paid off, they won handsomely, when it didn’t, they lost narrowly.
Until the seventh game that is.
In what was otherwise a tough, watchable battle of a match, the seventh game stood out as the difference maker. Cha and Pak went into seventh gear which the Indians didn’t have and absolutely blew it. They returned top-spinning drops that caught the net cord with drops that had top spin, somehow. They set up easy kills at will. They finished the game, the match, with the most ridiculous forehand, Cha racing across the court to slam a wicked, spinning forehand that split the two motionless Indians.
There’s no shame in going down in this brightness, especially when you run them so close. They will stand toe to toe with some of the best in the game and they will leave the arena on their own two feet.
And so, Sutirtha and Ayhika will return with unprecedented bronzes around their necks. More importantly, though, after defeating China in China, they will return with the knowledge that they are capable of much more. Not just the belief, but the knowledge… that anything is possible if they put themselves back.