India's top-ranked female paddler Manika Batra will be the cynosure of all eyes at the National Ranking (South Zone) Table Tennis Championships, beginning at the Municipal Indoor Hall here on Thursday.
Manika, who became the first female table tennis player to win a medal at the Asian Games recently when she grabbed bronze with Sharath Kamal in the mixed doubles category, will have the company of the rest of the men and women squads in the contest which will see Kamal and G. Sathiyan missing out citing personal reasons.
The participation of Anthony Amalraj, Harmeet Desai and Manav Thakkar, who completed a hat-trick of men titles at Indore, is a plus and makes the competition fierce and healthy.
Manav Thakkar, who is leading the chart with 430 points in men's ranking, will be as hot a contender as Amalraj, who is just a spot behind him with 320 points. The next best is Arjun Ghosh, who is 200 points behind the leader. That speaks volumes of how the biggies have struggled at home in recent times.
Manika, who has become a great hit after her showing in the back-to-back Games at Gold Coast and Jakarta, has just one title-winning performance (North Zone) this season as she skipped the Central Zone tournament.
She will have a real fight on her hands with Pooja Shasrabuddhe, the winner at Indore, and Divya Deshpande, the institutional champion, to maintain her to top-chart position with 400 points. Though an off-colour Sutirtha Mukherjee is just behind her on 300 points, the presence of young Archana Kamath and Madhurika Patkar makes the contest for women singles crown a toss-up between Manika and Pooja.
The open draw has given a level-playing field to the young guns while the two-player per group qualification system has gained in popularity, giving participants more scope to get into the main draw.
The draw for top 16 men and eight women seeds, who get direct entries into the second stage, will indicate how the seeded players are stacked up against each other. Eight players each of Youth and Junior Boys and Girls sections will also gain direct stage 2 entry.
With a 10 percent increase in prize money from this zonal, the participants would be vying with one another to do justice to the prize purse, totalling Rs. 7.47 lakh. The men's singles winner will receive Rs. 77,000, while the women singles winner takes home Rs. 66,000.
The competition department has the Cadet and Sub-Junior, Junior, Youth events, followed by the men and women events. The finals of the men and women singles are slated for next Wednesday.
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