Sathiyan Gnanasekaran is always brimming with positivity. On the court, he is effervescent, warming up, exercising or having an animated discussion with colleagues. In the rare time that he is down on his seat, he is constantly concentrating or focusing on something. His diminutive stature doesn't give a glimpse of his explosiveness on the table. It's the kind of body language that catches your eye.
And it's not just the body language, his exponential rise in the world of table tennis also makes you take notice. At the beginning of this month, Sathiyan became the youngest Indian to hit the top-40 in world rankings. From 125 in May last year to 39 in August in 2018, Sathiyan has climbed 86 spots in 15 months. Yes, the new rankings system has played a major role but it doesn't completely mask the Chennai boy's hard work and exploits on the court.
He was the only member of the Indian team in Gold Coast that didn't have the experience of playing in the Commonwealth Games, but he walked out with three medals on debut - team gold, men's doubles silver (with Sharath Kamal) and mixed doubles bronze (with Manika Batra).
In Indonesia, he will be a vital cog in India's quest for the elusive medal at the Asiad. However, the Asian Games will be completely different from the CWG, the level of competition will be extremely high with the Asian powerhouses participating.
Not just on court, Sathiyan has been a bundle of energy off it too and the desire to improve at every step has been the catalyst behind his consistency. With every passing tournament, he seems to get better.
"We figured it out that the more you start playing better, the more people are seeing you, they are studying you and the next time they come up, they are going to have a different strategy," Sathiyan tells Firstpost. "So I prepared myself like - if you want to play the same game it's not going to work. Every time I get surprised, I keep surprising them with new skills."
The constant self-examination and a systematic set-up back home in Chennai has had a major impact.
"It's very systematic, well planned, methodical work and continuous follow -up," says Sathiyan's coach Subramaniam Raman, a former India player and Arjuna awardee, explaining the reason behind his pupil's meteoric rise. "After every tournament, he is studying his game, what he is doing, where he is getting better. This kind of close follow-up and analysis helps in developing the game further," the Arjuna awardee adds.
The idea is to follow a process with a European style system built at home.
"(The key is) to have a very good system in place with all the proper experts there. We keep adding to the skillset, fitness and the mental part has also been there. I have been working with a dietician also. And Raman sir has been a great coach, he knows my game in and out, so we have been following a process," Sathiyan explains.
It is this will to improve that set him on the road to Hong Kong in July this year. An eight-day sojourn to the East Asian country was planned this July to get himself prepared for the Asian Games and it surprised everyone.
"You have to have a definite gameplan. You cannot have a mundane gameplan having to train in national camp only and play with the Indian players," says Raman. "At this point, if you are just playing with Indian players, there is so much of familiar territory between themselves. So it doesn't make sense for anybody. They need to play with better players, different players with different style, approach and all of that. So we figured out that for Asian Games, it's more important, crucial and beneficial to play with Asian players."
Those eight days were a huge learning curve. He worked with the local coaches and trained with the Hong Kong national team players. Hong Kong is currently ranked seventh in the world and getting to play against quality sparring partners was a shot in the arm.
"It was more of a psyche also to go to the Asian countries where they are already at the top and play with them, train at the center, that gives a very good feeling inside and you are much more confident mentally facing the Asians."
After the Hong Kong camp, Sathiyan performed well at the Korea Open (reached Round of 32) and Australian Open (Reached round of 16), both Platinum series tournaments. He's played against a lot of Asians of late. And the 10-day national China camp has only taken his preparations one step ahead where he rubbed shoulders with the local Chinese players and also the national team for a day.
Sathiyan knows that the Asian Games will be nowhere similar to the CWG. India's best chance of a medal is in the team event. In the singles, Sathiyan will be seeded 11th and will have to go on an upset spree to get home that medal. The goal will be to reach quarters first and then take it forward from there.
In the team event, there are five singles where two players can play a maximum of two matches and the third one - one. The selection of three will depend on team strategy on the day but Sathiyan along with Sharath Kamal and Harmeet Desai form the backbone of the team. Kamal will, in all probability, play two singles and the next in line might be Sathiyan. However, on a given day, all three players will have to play at the peak of their prowess along with a favourable draw (not get China in the quarters) for India to stand any chance. Sathiyan can play a key role in soaking the pressure off Kamal who will be expected to win his two singles every time he enters the court.
"He's one of the mainstays for the Indian team so obviously his role will be very crucial in terms of winning matches for the team," says Raman. "And of course doing well in the singles is up to him and the draw. If he has a good draw…Well, no draw will be good but at least if he is not playing a top Chinese early then he can think of having a good look. But his role is big no doubt. If a player wins both singles, then he makes the job easier for the other players. It is definitely big and crucial. But it depends on the team also."
Sathiyan has been working on a few technical aspects post the CWG. He has changed his stance and standing position. He was a little far away from the table, now he stands closer to the table. He has worked on a close to the table game approach, especially near the net ball, generally, he is close to the table but he needs to play balls that are near the net, a little bit stronger. He has been working on the serves as well as the receives because with the Asians the margin of error is very little. A slightly poor serve and you are smashed out as they are much quicker.
The strong preparation has injected the confidence to take on the Asian giants.
"Definitely (I am confident of beating the Asians). Because I've been beating so many Asians. I have had some fantastic wins in Korea, I beat Jiang Tianyi - Hong Kong national team player - Yoshida Masaki (Now World No 57) at the Australian Open, Kim Donghyun (World No 66) of Korea at the Qatar Open back in April. I have had 3-4 wins with Yuya Oshima (Current world No 32) from Japan, so we if can beat them in Pro Tour, then why not in Asian Games? So that is definitely possible," Sathiyan beams.
And the experience gained from the CWG has been vital for another debut.
"In the CWG, I got the feel (of big games), the environment of playing, it was so much different - the pressure, the crowd, the feel of Games where you see the other sport players moving around with you, talking with them, so many officials," Sathiyan recalls. "The environment, the aura was so big, so huge, it took a couple of days for me in the CWG to get used to it and calm down myself so I will be much prepared during the Asian Games because I am already used to that kind of aura and environment.”
Sathiyan possesses an aggressive game but the key will be to employ that aggression right from the start.
"He has to Serve, receive and then playing the consecutive balls more aggressively. He is aggressive during the rally but having an aggressive mindset from the beginning of the rally will be the key," explains Raman.
The Chennai boy is indeed planning to go fearless at the Games.
"If you fear playing world no.1, I don't see any logic in that, you would fear playing every one then. You will be facing Olympic and world champion so you have to be fearless and not thinking too much about the results. That is the only way out if you want to have the slightest chance of beating those kinds of players," Sathiyan asserts.
After the CWG heroics and being an integral part of the team, the expectations are high and so is the pressure but for Sathiyan "pressure is a privilege”.
"We will just go out there and play with full vigour. This is the best chance. We are all confident and playing well and we hope to turn that pressure into a medal," he signs off in a typical positive Sathiyan style.
Updated Date: Aug 21, 2018 11:57 AM