India got its best shot at a maiden table tennis medal at the Olympics on Saturday when Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra became the first Indian pairing to qualify for the mega event in Tokyo, beating World No. 8 duo of Sang-Su Lee and Jihee Jeon 4-2 in the final of the Asian Qualification Tournament in Doha.
The 2018 Asian Games bronze medallists staged a remarkable comeback after being two sets down to outwit the top seeded Korean pair 8-11, 6-11, 11-5, 11-6, 13-11, 11-8 in a thrilling final to seal their Tokyo qualification in the mixed doubles. Only the winner of the event qualified for the Games.
The Indian pairing had beaten the Koreans en route to a historic medal in Asian Games before losing to them on the pro tour the following year.
"Manika was unstoppable today. It is very important for her to play with flow so that I am able to play my power game. That is the only way we compliment each other. She was outstanding.
"I never thought we could win the tournament. Now we are three games from winning an Olympic medal. It will be tough but it is our best shot," Sharath said referring to the 16-pairing draw at the Tokyo Games.
Sharath, who has also qualified for the singles event alongside G Sathiyan, has now set sights at reaching at least the mixed doubles quarter-finals at the Games.
"I think if we can reach the quarters, it would be a fantastic result for us at the Games. Anything else from there is a bonus," said the World number 32.
The unprecedented result in mixed doubles means India will now have five entries in Tokyo (two each in men and women singles besides mixed).
The delayed Tokyo Games will be held from July 23 to August 8 this year.
"I was really happy with myself to be able to withstand the attack and services of a player like lee Sang Su and Jion Jihee. Sharath bhaiya (brother) capitalised well with his attack to keep the pressure on them .
"I am very happy that along with singles we could even make by beating the Korean and Singapore pairing in the mix," said Manika.
On Friday, Sharath and Manika had defeated Singapore's Koen Pang Yew En and Lin Ye 4-2 in the semifinals to get to touching distance of making it to the showpiece event.
It was a creditable performance as the Indians, trailing 0-2, had to restore parity first and then gradually up the ante, particularly in the fifth and sixth games.
The timeouts -- the Indians took it in the fifth, and the Koreans in the sixth -- proved vital for the Indians.
Leading comfortably at 7-3 in the fifth, the Indians let the Koreans level the scores at 8-8. The Koreans squandered two game points at 10-9 and 11-10, but the Indians ensured they don't make any mistake as they converted their game point at 12-11 to make it 3-2.
In the sixth game, the Koreans led 8-4. The Indians slowly made it 7-8 when the Koreans took their timeout. But it was the Indians who made it 8-all and then collected the remaining three points for seven on the trot.
In the 56 minutes of play, the second-seeded pair had conceded a maximum of six points lead to their opponents while overcoming four deficit points. They also won more service points as compared to their opponents.
Following the incredible results, Sharath said the two now need to play more often to hit a good rhythm ahead of the Games.
"We will have to sit down and chalk out our plans. We cannot tour Europe or elsewhere because of the COVID situation. Probably, the WTT China hub could be the best option for the moment," said Sharath.
While Sathiyan and Sutirtha emerged winners in their respective categories of the South Asian Group to qualify, Sharath and Manika sealed Tokyo berths by virtue of being the highest-ranked second-placed players.