Commonwealth Games 2018: Sathiyan Gnanasekaran breaks conservative shell to aim for gold on debut

"I feel I have a very good chance of winning a gold medal in the singles."

There is an air of confidence about Sathiyan Gnanasekaran. Confidence in the way he speaks, in the way he trains, in the way he handles his social media accounts, and most importantly, in the way he approaches his game.

Things were very different a year ago. The confidence was sucked out of the 25-year-old during the Asian Championships last April. He was totally out of sorts and there was distinct disconnect from the table. He couldn't connect the ball. Something was going terribly wrong. A bevy of thoughts and self-doubt had sauntered into his mind. Ranked 112 in the world, the thought of hitting the top-100 was adding more pressure. Table tennis is more of a mental game than physical and a round-of-64 exit in the Championships provided a reality check.

The ouster made him realise that he wasn't making much progress. He had stagnated. The world ranking dropped to 125.

 Commonwealth Games 2018: Sathiyan Gnanasekaran breaks conservative shell to aim for gold on debut

"I started believing that having pressure is a privilege." Image courtesy Sathiyan Facebook page

Fast forward to 2018, Sathiyan will make his Commonwealth Games debut and in his first year, he will be the top seeded Indian player to enter the Games, making him one of the most crucial members of the Indian team.

From 125th ranked player in the world to 49 in eight months, Sathiyan's rapid rise is a testament to his hardwork, presence of mind and the will to break out of his shell.

So then, what had gone wrong and how did he achieve this drastic turnaround?

A year ago, a force within was dragging him back — his conservative mindset that came with his social setup.

"I am a person who never used to take much risk in my life. Probably because of my family setup, my background, coming from a South Indian conservative family," Sathiyan tells Firstpost.

"It's about the social setup where you are brought up. India is the second-most populous country in the world and taking a risk is a big call. You need to have a financial back-up like what happens if you fail? That is the major question mark in everyone's mind. Do Engineering and get a job in the IT Company, do an MBA or MS and have a job, this is considered as a safe option in the Indian society. Going into the game, it also affected me because I was always like a player who didn't want to take risks and miss the balls. I didn't want to make mistakes. I just wanted to make sure I put the ball on the table," he adds.

The Engineer-turned-paddler speaks honestly about how his family background meant that he grew up in a conservative environment where risk-taking was not encouraged. The household was not rich, and understandably, his parents were keen to ensure that financial stability was maintained. While in no way critical of his parents' beliefs, Sathiyan explains how he had to adopt a more adventurous mindset in order to succeed at the top level of his sport.

"Dad was coming from a very poor family, he wanted us to have a basic set up, do Engineering, study, go for a job. I don't blame him because that's how the society is brought up in India and everyone wants to have a safe life where you have minimum earning at least and then you build on from that," Sathiyan explains.

"But then you hit a plateau very soon in that kind of area. I told him if you want to play Olympics, you have to take that risk. You can't just be a normal guy and dream of playing Olympics; it will stay as a dream. I did Engineering and when I got a job they were more satisfied that now I can go (and achieve my dream)."

The shackles had to be broken. This is where his coach Subramaniam Raman — a former India player and Arjuna awardee — played a crucial role. Raman has played a pivotal role in shaping Sathiyan's career ever since he took him under his wing back in 2012. He realised that the Chennai boy’s potential wasn’t being fully utilised. Noticing that his pupil has hit a roadblock, Raman advised Sathiyan to take calculated risks. It was all about trying out new and difficult skills in the match without thinking about the outcome.

It proved to be a masterstroke.

"(Raman) Sir said you have never crossed that barrier where you have to just go out there and try your maximum," Sathiyan says.

"He said, ‘You never knew that you would win Pro Tour (Belgium Open 2016), you have already won it so if you want to go further then you have to go and try out different skills where you don't know what the outcome is’. I went on to take calculated risks. Because I felt it was the only way going ahead. Playing safe you are going to probably win one but lose five but if I employ that skill right now, probably I am going to lose one here but there is going to be a fear in the opponent’s mind that he is here to do something (different), trying out things which are going to come in few years."

S Raman has played a pivotal role in shaping Sathiyan's career ever since he took him under his wing back in 2012. Raman TT High Performance Centre Youtube channel

S Raman has played a pivotal role in shaping Sathiyan's career ever since he took him under his wing back in 2012. Image courtesy Raman TT High Performance Centre Youtube channel

The tactic worked. Sathiyan started going for his shots, especially during crucial junctures which, he earlier would have held back on and played safe. Raman terms it as 'trained risk'.

"I won't call it risk. It is more a trained risk. It's a trained skill, having that mindset and mental makeover to understand. Thankfully he (Sathiyan) is educated enough so he could understand. And then as he saw, that he was getting results sporadically here and there, so he realised, oh! Maybe this is the route, this is what makes one better and better," the 49-year-old Arjuna awardee tells Firstpost.

Another important decoy that Raman kicked out of Sathiyan's mind was 'hitting the top-100' pressure. He asked him to concentrate on long-term targets like 60-70 rather than the 100-mark. Again, it worked and Sathiyan slowly started gaining confidence by making it to the Round of 16 in the Croatia Open last year.

He employed this newly-developed aggressive approach fully in the Australian Open a couple of months later and that, in some ways, was the turning point. He reached the Round of 16 and en route beat No 14 seed Chinese Taipei’s Chen Chien-An, his first top-50 win.

Sathiyan started feeling good about his game, again. Along with the injection of aggression, Sathiyan brought in a lot of variations in his serves and receives. Earlier, his game used to be more rally-oriented where he looked to build on but now he started to go hard on the first and second balls itself where his biggest asset, his speed, was optimally utilised to unsettle the opponents early. It caught even Raman by surprise.

"Sir was telling me he was himself surprised. At some moments he thought that I might do this, I might play safe but I went for those shots. I just let it go at that time. I didn’t think much about what is going to happen. I think that made the difference," Sathiyan explains.

Along the way, Sathiyan formed a formidable partnership with veteran Sharath Kamal in doubles and won bronze in the Belgium and Sweden Opens. The consistency was there but somehow the final outcome was missing. It finally arrived three months later when Sathiyan brought his 'A' game out to win the Spanish Open title, in the process becoming the first Indian to win two Pro Tour titles. Earlier, he had clinched the Belgium Open title in 2016. The Chennai boy carried the momentum into the Ultimate Table Tennis League where he went rampant and beat all six opponents in the league and remained unbeaten. That, according to Sathiyan, changed him as a player. He was now a fearless beast.

With success came expectations and with expectations the pressure soared. Sathiyan found a new way to tackle this domino effect and soon he was into the top-50 bracket by January 2018.

"I started believing that having pressure is a privilege," Sathiyan explains. "You are facing pressure because you are good. A normal guy who is playing on the table won’t feel the pressure. (Raman) Sir used to say you are very good that is why you are feeling the pressure. I just went there, played and to be honest, never really thought I would hit top 50 this soon which was the great motivation."

Sathiyan was on a rampage in the Ultimate Table Tennis and went unbeaten. UTT

Sathiyan was on a rampage in the Ultimate Table Tennis and went unbeaten. UTT

Getting out of that vicious conservative bubble was wasn't easy for Sathiyan as well as for Raman. However, Raman had experienced it all before, he had come from a similar background where safety-first approach took precedence. But he was brave enough to chart his own blueprint and even at this age, continues to do so. It is this experience that helped Sathiyan veer away from the no-risk route.

"Definitely, it was quite difficult (to change Sathiyan’s mindset). I have also gone through it, lived in the same conservative mindset where the people around you, your parents are not very big risk takers," Raman explains.

"I told him, even at this point in time, I have taken a huge risk and quit my lucrative job to come and coach people individually like you and others, which itself is a proof. I really thrive on taking good risks. Not risk like going and gambling but good risk that drives me in my passion. Here we are not competing with our own setup but at the world level so obviously you need to meet the demands of the world competition and one of the demands is training yourself to play more aggressively and take bold decisions that you are trained for."

Raman still constantly keeps reminding Sathiyan to not get into his shell. It's a continuous process.

Sathiyan has played 16 international tournaments in the last 15 months, including 14 Pro Tours, a World Championship, an Asian Championship and also the league in Europe. It's the most he's played in such a short span of time and it has helped him get the space to try more skills and play against quality opponents. He was recently signed up by German super division club, ASV Grunwettersbach Tischtennis on a one-year contract. Sathiyan couldn't have asked for better preparation going into the Games.

"It's really good that I could peak at the right time. Coming into the games I will feel more confident. I am not worrying about the results and I already know that I am playing at a certain level. The preparation has been excellent with a lot of pro tours, camps, skill training and fitness training."

Sathiyan is be the only member of the current Indian squad who hasn’t had the experience of playing in Commonwealth Games before. Playing in your first Games could be nervy and intimidating but Sharath feels it's an exception for one player.

"For Sathiyan I don't think it matters so much because he is quite confident by himself normally," Sharath tells Firstpost.

This statement from the veteran is a testimony to the confidence Sathiyan has gained over the last one year. And it is this confidence that drives him to aim for a gold on the Gold Coast.

"Commonwealth Games is what I have been hearing from my coach and seniors so going there finally is a great feeling, it's not about just going there — It's about winning, standing on the podium and getting the national anthem sung for you, that will be the best feeling. It's been quite a while since I've had that feeling so really eager to have that moment again."

The Commonwealth Games will mark Sathiyan’s first big global tournament appearance at senior level and if he manages to bring back the gold for India, it could mark the beginning of another glorious chapter in Sathiyan's short success story so far. He has come out of his shell and is heading for the podium.

Updated Date: Apr 02, 2018 21:05:07 IST