Mukherjee magic not enough as Koreans bring their wizardry to the table

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Sutirtha Mukherjee and Ayhika Mukherjee are Asian Games bronze medallists. The first ever Indian women’s doubles team to medal at this level. Fuelled by one of the great upsets in India’s sporting history, it had redefined the word impossible.

For now, though, thanks to Cha Suyong and Pak Sugyong, the dream of a first Indian table tennis finalist(s) remains just that, a dream.

Outside of North Korea and the inner circles of TT, those names may not mean much – they are not on the ITTF rankings, neither is anyone else from their country – but that doesn’t mean anything. As they showed on Monday morning, being unknown doesn’t mean they are not exceptional.

In a superb semifinal, they beat the Mukherjees 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 with Jeon Jihee and Shin Yubin, neighbours from down south.

For Sutirtha and Ayhika, though, this is nowhere near the end of their road. The match, for the first six games, was an exhibition of what makes the two so good and why they should continue to play together.

Childhood friends who read each other’s intentions brilliantly (despite, rather strangely, only having started working as a pair recently), they play to each other’s strengths. Ayhika’s backhand block, full of dip and variation and backspin, often sets up a tough return for the opponent, enabling Sutirtha to unleash that jackhammer of a backhand smash of hers. And we saw that time and again on Monday.

The first game was won 11-7 on the back of Ayhika’s blocking and variation, and some superbly deceptive serving. The third game was won 11-7 again, but this time on the back of Sutirtha’s power. There’s subtle sidespin on Sutirtha’s backhands but viscerally it’s all power, the wristwork subsumed by the entirety of her being working itself into the shot.

The sixth game was arguably their best. Trailing 2-3, their coach Mamta Prabhu advised them to trust their backhands: ‘Chala, chala, backhand chala’ ; and that’s what they did.

It started with three backhand slaps (all to different parts of the table) from Sutirtha and ended with a magical defensive slice from Ayhika. In between came the trademark setup — Ayhika’s blocking forcing a weak reply, Sutirtha killing the rally early — and Ayhika’s variations in front-foot defence.

But that was as good as it got. The three games before the decider that Cha Suyong and Pak Sugyong had won had been dominated by their forehands – big, booming swipes that imparted spin of the levels Muttiah Muralitharan could only have dreamt up.

But they had all been close, especially game 5, where the two teams went toe-to-toe on attack and Cha had to bring out a cross forehand out of nowhere to take the game.

In those three games, Cha and Pak had attacked the Mukherjees’ forehands, keeping the ball from their strengths, forcing errors. There were sublime shots from them in there, including a frankly ridiculous push from Pak that looked straightforward till it suddenly jumped and spun into an unsuspecting Ayhika’s face.

That it still ran close was a testament of how much the Indians had leaned into coach Mamta’s “bindaas khelo” philosophy. They took risks: when it paid off, they won handsomely, when it didn’t, they lost narrowly.

Till the seventh game, that is.

In what had otherwise been a tight, see-sawing battle of a match, the seventh game stood out as the difference-maker. Cha and Pak shifted to a seventh gear the Indians simply didn’t have and absolutely blew them away. They returned top-spinning drops that caught the net cord with drops that had more top spin, somehow. They set up easy kills at will. They ended the game, the match, with a most ludicrous forehand, Cha racing across the court to slam a vicious, spinning forehand that split the two motionless Indians.

There’s no shame in going down to this brilliance, especially when you’ve run them so close. They’d stood toe-to-toe with some of the best in the game and they leave the arena on their own feet.

And so, Sutirtha and Ayhika will return with unprecedented bronzes around their neck. More importantly, though, after having beaten China in China, they will return with the knowledge that they are capable of much. Not just belief, knowledge… that if they back themselves, anything is possible.

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