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Asian Games: A historic table tennis bronze that was 20 years in the making

The Mukherjees, Ayhika, and Sutirtha started making plans two decades ago as kids in West Bengal’s Naihati to play table tennis.

The Indian pair realized their dream of playing at the Asian Games in style at the 19th Asian Games with a bronze medal in women’s doubles — the country’s maiden podium finish in the category at the Games.

Two days before losing in the semifinals, the Mukherjees had hushed a capacity crowd at the Gongshu Canal Sports Park Gymnasium by defeating China’s reigning world champions Chen Meng and Yidi Wang in their last-eight match to create a massive stir in China – a country that virtually worships its TT stars.

There was a beeline to get their thoughts after the win over the world champion team. The same surname of two Indian girls foxed some of the foreign journalists into believing that they were sisters.

“We are not sisters, but we share the same surname. We have known each other and played together since childhood, so it is very easy to understand each other,” Ayhika had said then.

“I can read her mind and she can read mine. And we really have fun on the table, no matter if we are losing or are playing against the world’s best.”

The semifinal entry assured them a medal. But the last-four clash against the North Koreans Cha Suyong and Pak Sugyong on Monday ended in an agonizing defeat that traveled the distance in the best-of-seven match.

The Koreans in the Asian Games

The Koreans won 7-11, 11-8, 7-11, 11-8, 11-9, 5-11, 11-2 for a place in the gold-medal match.

“They started in the same club,” said coach Mamta Prabhu. “Their friendship goes back more than 20 years. They know each other really well and know the ins and outs of each other. That’s why the bonding is really strong.”

The Mukherjee didn’t start well but kept throwing punches to come back, but then lost the fourth and fifth games, facing a must-win situation in the next game. They won it to make it 3-3 and take the match into the decider.

“I think the North Koreans had a few points where they played really fantastic and they were totally out of rhythm then. Not a happy day for us, I can say.”

The crowd wasn’t as much of a factor on Monday as in the quarterfinal, but the locals still backed the Koreans.

“We are used to it. In the last match (quarter-final) we played against China. There were more cheers than this. This time the crowd was in favor of North Korea but we are used to it,” said Mamta.

Sutirtha and Ayhika, childhood friends from Naihati, are happy, though the disappointment of not going past the semi-finals was also evident in their words.

“It feels surreal to win this medal, but it could have been better. We are happy with what we have,” said Ayhika.

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