At the start of the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, last year, table tennis was something of a hurried footnote in medal forecasts. As the fortnight drew to a close, India was counting 10 medals in the sport with shock and quiet reflection.
Five of them were won by the women's team, the Team of the Year winner at the ESPN India Awards for 2018. And four of those five were won by 23-year-old Manika Batra.
India set up a final against four-time defending champions Singapore, who'd never lost gold since the sport was brought under the CWG program in 2002. Few wagered that the India women -- who'd never won a CWG medal before -- stood even half a chance.
Sensing the task they were up against, coach Massimo Costantini got his brood around him and told them a story - of how in 2010, Singapore women pulled off a massive upset, ending China's 19-year reign at the World Team Championships.
At the heart of that historic win for Singapore was World No. 4 Tianwei Feng, whom Manika was to face in the first rubber of the team final. From 2-1 down, Manika flipped predictions on their head with an unlikely 3-2 win in what was the biggest result of her career. That set the tone for the match. Now, hope suddenly came alive.
Mouma Das and Madhurika Patkar too chipped in with a win in the doubles rubber and by the time the match moved into the fourth game - Manika up against Yihan Zhou - with India in a 2-1 lead, history beckoned.
At her Mumbai home, former India player Neha Aggarwal, who was part of the 2008 Olympic contingent, had her phone video recorder turned on the whole time. "It was a big, big surprise," says Neha. "I was trying to record whatever I could on my phone."
Neha knew what was unfolding before her was almost unreal. Manika, six years her junior who trained under the same coach as her, was fashioning something special.
"It was a rush of emotions. I've always wanted to win that medal for India and to see it happen and Manika do it was an inexplicable feeling."
A lot of work went into building Manika's game into what it is today. "Towards the close of my career," says Neha, "(Coach) Sandeep (Gupta) sir and myself began talking a lot on what could have been better in my game structure because you want to rectify the mistakes and pass on the right advice to the next generation."
In fact, Neha was among the first female players in India to experiment with long pimples and along with coach Sandeep and her father went to Switzerland to have a closer understanding of its technique. It's used by a only a small percentage of players at the international level.
"With me it was more of 'let's try this or let's do that and see what works' so by the time Manika came along, Sandeep sir already knew what works best. In that sense, the time taken to work on her game was a lot lesser because we already had most of the answers in place. So, really a lot of hard work has gone into propping this one person onto the table tennis scene," says Neha.
And Manika has reaped the benefits. She's been able to use the long-pimpled rubber on the backhand side of her racket, twiddling effectively to confuse and surprise opponents. Long pimples allow her to chop the ball, countering the heaviest and fastest of loops and also generate a lot of backspin to set up counter-attacks. Flipping the paddle and switching the backhand side has only added to her mystery.
She finished with four medals at the Commonwealth Games and overnight turned into a breakthrough star, sending Indian sports fans into a Googling spree. They now wanted to know everything about her - from her idols to the last TV show she binge watched while brands lined up to sign her up as the face of their products.
At the start of this year, Manika became the first Indian female table tennis player to break into the top 50 of the world rankings.
"Earlier whenever you heard of TT and big results, you automatically linked it to the men - it was either Sharath (Kamal), Sathyan (Gnanasekaran) or Soumyajit (Ghosh). During my playing years, we even struggled to enter the top 100. But over the past one year, the narrative has changed," says Neha.
And the inflection point of this renaissance in Indian women's table tennis came with the clink of medals in Gold Coast.