How Sathiyan Gnanasekaran turned the tables on fate

Around two years ago, Sathiyan was languishing at 125 in the world rankings after a round-of-64 exit at the Asian Championships. Twenty-one months down the line, he has jumped 97 places, breezing into the top 30.

Jigar Mehta March 02, 2019 06:00:55 IST
How Sathiyan Gnanasekaran turned the tables on fate

What do you do, Sathiyan?

I play table tennis.

We also play that. But what do you actually do?

I actually play table tennis!

It's a situation Sathiyan Gnanasekaran often encountered during his formative years. In a country where table tennis was always considered an extracurricular activity, the 26-year-old had a hard time convincing everyone, including his parents, that he could make a career out of it.
The Chennai boy never gave up, though. After years of hard work, juggling engineering and sport, Sathiyan in February became the highest-ranked Indian ever in singles on the international table tennis circuit. Jumping three places from 31 to 28, he overtook 30-placed veteran Sharath Kamal. It was followed by a simple but special celebration. “Normally, I don't have sweets and chocolates but my mother gave me a sweet and I celebrated at home with her after a long time,” Sathiyan says.

How Sathiyan Gnanasekaran turned the tables on fate

File image of G Sathiyan. Image Courtesy: Facebook

Around two years ago, Sathiyan was languishing at 125 in the world rankings after a round-of-64 exit at the Asian Championships. Twenty-one months down the line, he has jumped 97 places, breezing into the top 30.

It’s the vision of his coach, Subramaniam Raman — a former India player — and meticulous planning that has now made him a mainstay in the national team. And it’s no coincidence that Sathiyan’s rise has coincided with India’s ascent in TT over the last two years.
“I along with Raman sir went to Germany in 2013 for a one-month training stint,” Sathiyan explains. "Raman sir was very impressed. I knew with engineering constraints I can’t go out of the country. So we constructed an entire system at home where I started training under fitness expert Ramji sir who would prepare a customised schedule. Then, with the help of GoSports Foundation, I got a mental-conditioning coach, dietician and physio.” The duo made them work in sync. It clicked. “Back in 2012, I used to laugh when Raman said that top 50 should be my aim.”

How things have changed.

Born into a middle-class family in Chennai, Sathiyan took a liking to the sport at a very young age. He was fascinated by speed and spin, two vital components, which came naturally to him. Rising steadily through the junior ranks, he wanted to make a career in TT but his parents preferred the safer route of engineering.

“Being an academically driven family, my parents were really scared about whether I can make a career out of sport. ‘What if everything goes wrong?’ I used to tell them, we need to take risks. Without taking risks or chances, you can never get to the highest level.”
Balancing studies and TT was tough. It started affecting his game and while transitioning from junior to senior level, his career hit a plateau. In 2012, his performance dropped and negative thoughts crept in. “I used to really cry and feel sad about what is going to happen next. I started becoming average in both studies and TT.”

However, later that year, three simultaneous moments of serendipity boosted his career: meeting Raman, a job in ONGC and a scholarship from the state government. Completing engineering was just a formality then. The job satisfied his family and allowed him to fully pursue his passion. That passion has now made him an Arjuna awardee.

Sathiyan is the only Indian to have won two Pro Tour titles. He won three medals on debut in India's historic performance at the Commonwealth Games and played a crucial role in bringing home an elusive Asian Games medal.

The sprightly youngster’s success is a testament to his insatiable desire to improve. He undergoes constant self-examination, adapting his gameplay to suit current trends and sits for hours with Raman, scanning through videos of opponents to chalk out plan A, B and C for each.
Growing up in a conservative environment, he always took a defensive and risk-free approach on the table. He realised this strategy was limited, worked on it assiduously and soon transformed it into counter-attacking gameplay punctuated by calculated risks.
“My coach used to tell me, if someone plays 100 balls, you play 101. This was the attitude I had in my childhood. But that changed. Now, it’s play two balls and make sure the third one doesn’t come back.”

He started beating higher-ranked players, which gave him more satisfaction than anything else. Earlier, even the thought of beating a Chinese player would seem improbable. Now, if you ask him if he goes into a match thinking he can beat a Chinese player, the resounding reply is, “Definitely yes.”

Just three months ago, he beat Youth Olympic gold medallist and one of the brightest talents on the circuit, Wang Chuqin of China at the Austria Open. It’s the year of the World and Commonwealth Championships and Sathiyan knows he needs to constantly keep evolving to go one step further.

"I need to work on my receives and try to hit my first three balls quite hard. I need to get more power into my strokes. And improve a lot physically as well."

He has already switched to hard rubbers, from Tenergy 05 to Tenergy 05 Hard, to get more power and spin into his game. There are training stints planned for Korea or Hong Kong. Sathiyan’s next aim is to hit the top 15 by the end of this year but his ultimate aspiration is a coveted Olympic medal. Earlier, an Asian Games medal used to be a distant dream. Now the Chennai boy thinks, "It's definitely possible to win a medal in Tokyo 2020."

From being an unknown name in the table tennis arena to a crucial member of the Indian team to an Arjuna awardee to the highest ranked Indian player in the world, Sathiyan has raced ahead, changing perceptions en route.
"When you are an Arjuna awardee, no one asks you what you do," Sathiyan quips.

"The sport has also grown immensely where people look at you as a role model. People don't ask you that question when you play cricket. So that kind of respect for the sport has grown now. The approach from extracurricular activities to the profession is actually happening. I am really happy about it."

No one is questioning Sathiyan now.

How things have changed.

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