Ayhika Mukherjee: Naihati woman cracking the Chinese TT code

An Arjuna awardee for her Asian Games bronze in table tennis, Mukherjee has been in great form at the World Team Championships

Ayhika Mukherjee receives the Arjuna award from President Droupadi Murmu (photo courtesy: Ayhika Mukherjee)
Ayhika Mukherjee receives the Arjuna award from President Droupadi Murmu (photo courtesy: Ayhika Mukherjee)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

It was a momentous occasion on 9 January for the Mukherjees of Naihati, a town 50 km north of Kolkata.

Ayhika Mukherjee — who had, with teammate Sutirtha Mukherjee — cracked the Chinese code to finish with a women’s doubles bronze in table tennis at the Hangzhou Asian Games, was receiving the Arjuna award from President Droupadi Murmu at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Now 26, Ayhika may have been a late bloomer of sorts; but is currently on a roll.

A key member of the Indian squad at the ongoing World Team Championships in Busan, Ayhika — ranked a lowly world No.155 — played the match of her life to stun world No.1 Chinese player Sun Yingsha in four gruelling games, exactly four days ago.

Her teammate Sreeja Akula also held off world No. 2 Wang Didi, even though India lost the rubber 3–2 finally.

The women’s team—where Ayhika Mukherjee and Akula are partnered with seasoned world No. 35 Monica Batra—kept their dreams alive for a ticket to Paris Olympics when they held off Spain 3-2 on Tuesday, 20 February. Ayhika again played her part, when she held her nerve and prevailed against Elvira Rad of Spain to put first points for India on the board.

This means India could qualify as the second team from the group to advance to the second round.

Speaking to the National Herald over the phone, Ayhika’s father Gautam Mukherjee — a former BSF employee — said, ‘’There is no doubt that she is playing some of the best table tennis of her life. A good quality about her is that even as a junior, she always wanted to enjoy the game more rather than (worry about) winning or losing — and this often brought out the best in her.’’

How is it that despite dishing out such dominant performances in recent times, Ayhika is still ranked below 150? ‘’This has a lot to do with her lack of sponsorship," Gautam Mukherjee said, "as in table tennis, you have to plough back your earnings into playing more tournaments. After the Asian Games, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) has started supporting her for the exposure trips and this will be a great help.’’

Incidentally, Ayhika came close to making the cut for Tokyo 2020 as well, but India lost the final qualifier to Poland. This time around, India is among the top 24 teams and will have to overcome a play-off to make it to the last 16 and zero in on the quarterfinals. The final eight teams will go to Paris.

‘’The medal in the Asian Games showed me that it’s not 'impossible' to dream of an Olympic medal," says Ayhika Mukherjee herself. "As Asian superpowers like China, Japan and South Korea were there, the competition was already world-class in Hangzhou." So an Olympic line-up of opponents no longer intimidates her—but she's still taking it "one step at a time", she says.

Now an employee of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Mukherjee has moved to Kolkata to train with coach Soumyadeep Roy.

After receiving the Arjuna award recently, she said in an interview: 'Since I started playing the sport seriously in 2010–11, I had always cherished the dream of holding the trophy, as our state (West Bengal) has a number of Arjuna awardees in my coach (Soumyadeep) Roy, Poulumi Ghatak and Mouma Das. I am glad that I have come this far.'

As India went on a medal rush at Hangzhou to cross the 100-medal benchmark, the story of the Mukherjee girls took a life of their own for the scale of their achievement. Showing great resilience, the two wore down the reigning world champions Meng Chen and Yidi Wang 3-1 in a thrilling women’s doubles quarter-final to ensure themselves a medal after a semis berth.

The Mukherjees lost the semi-final to North Korea alright, but returned home with their heads held high still, and a rare medal.

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