Tokyo 2020 in sight, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran's 17-year quest for Olympic glory nears culmination

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran was first drawn to the Olympics in 2004, and for 17 years, his fascination for the five rings has only grown. As he stands on the cusp of his maiden Olympics, we chart his journey from a scrawny teenager to an all-condition paddler.

Shantanu Srivastava Last Updated:July 08, 2021 14:43:46 IST
Tokyo 2020 in sight, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran's 17-year quest for Olympic glory nears culmination

Summers in Chennai are ruthless. Temperatures regularly breach the 40-degree mark, sea breeze coming from the Bay of Bengal rarely brings relief, and the sapping humidity is relentless. On one such punishing afternoon, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran sits in front of his laptop – wired, grainy, grinning.

Sunlight filters through the window on his right, splashing varying hues across his face, and adding fresh gloss on the teeming trophy cabinet behind him. Sathiyan is very much a modern Indian athlete: eager to embrace innovation, ready to challenge myths and expectations, and unashamed to bare his ambitions – of which there are many. Sitting in the new house - that he has built – the World No 38 is flanked, literally and figuratively, by market forces; table-top calendars bearing the markings of the management companies that represent him sit next to him, his t-shirt has the logo of a leading equipment manufacturer, he drops generous thank-you notes to his sponsors, but it is his toothy grin that actually reaches out to you. It would make regular appearances during the conversation, particularly each time he would talk of table tennis and what it means to him.

“Oh, I have a bigger one in the hall,” he chuckles upon being commended on his gleaming trophy collection.

Then, he turns left to mark out his favourite. A significant piece of metal that first told a World No 152 that he belonged. “I think this gave me a lot of recognition and also the confidence that I am good enough at the world stage,” he says of his career-changing win at the World Tour Belgium Open in September 2016 that made him the first Indian after trailblazer compatriot Sharath Kamal to win at that level.

“This, and the Spanish Open I won the next year are very close to me. They made me the first Indian to win two Pro Tour titles. They made me the player I am.”

These are not casual, perfunctory admissions. Sathiyan’s career took off after he defeated a slew of higher-ranked players in a memorable run in Belgium – World No 103 Jon Persson in the second round, World No 75 Steffen Mengel in the quarter-finals, and World No 113 and local favourite Cedric Nuytinck in the final.

Tokyo 2020 in sight Sathiyan Gnanasekarans 17year quest for Olympic glory nears culmination

Then came the Spanish Open title, followed by three medals on the Commonwealth Games debut in 2018 (gold in men’s team, silver in men’s doubles, and bronze in mixed doubles) the historic Asian Games bronze (men’s team). His career was never the same again.

Sathiyan’s growth trajectory began in 2008 with a double gold haul at the Youth Commonwealth Games in Pune, where he defeated Soumyajeet Ghosh in the singles final and later teamed up with him to win a doubles gold. Next came a team gold at the Asian Junior Table Tennis Championships in 2011, but it was not until November 2015 that his career took a decisive turn. It was a phase he looks back at with bittersweet feelings.

Sathiyan was in Guwahati, about to participate in a national ranking tournament. A decent result there would have helped him make the cut for next year’s Rio Olympics, but a phone call from home brought his world crashing down. His father, Gnanasekaran, had lost his battle to cancer. Sathiyan took the first available flight to Chennai.

“I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know what hit me. My father was the rock of the family. Everything and anything we needed, we went to him. Now, with him gone, we just didn’t know what to do. We were crippled,” recalls Sathiyan.

Gnanasekaran had diabetes, but he had not touched sweets in “25-30 years.”

“He had a very simple and healthy lifestyle. He understood the importance of fitness and would walk regularly. He was a strict vegetarian, never smoked, had no bad habits whatsoever. So, it really shook us.”

Gnanasekaran was diagnosed with sarcoma in 2011. Classified as a rare form of cancer, sarcoma primarily originates in connecting tissues of the human body. The tumour, then, was located in his legs, and he underwent surgery to have it removed. All seemed fine for four years, until one day, cancer returned – this time it had reached his lungs. Intense, year-long chemotherapy followed.

“It was so tough to see dad suffer. He was mentally very strong, that’s why his body could take it as long as it did. He had a chemo every 15 days for a year, which really crushed his body. At times he would say, ‘just let me go,’ I can’t describe that feeling. You shouldn’t wish that even for your worst enemies.”


To understand Sathiyan, the athlete, it is imperative to understand Sathiyan, the person. And to decipher him, one must time travel to 1998. A casual sports fan in India would recall the summer of ’98 with typical fondness – it was the summer of Sachin Tendulkar and the Desert Storm in Sharjah. A nation on the cusp of a millennium, a generation bubbling to rid itself from the yoke of mediocrity, a nuclear test in faraway Pokhran, an IT boom waiting to happen, an American pipe dream brewing – India were a country in flux.

In the four Olympics preceding '98, India had won a grand total of one medal. The last Olympic gold had come 18 years ago. We were still three years from Pullela Gopichand winning the All England or Steve Waugh’s Australians being tamed at Eden Gardens, five years from Sania Mirza lifting the girls’ doubles trophy at Wimbledon, and a good ten years from Abhinav Bindra doing the unthinkable in Beijing.

Naturally, sports, in Indian households, was still an anomaly. There was an odd Tendulkar, Leander Paes, or Dhanraj Pillay, but those were successes despite the system, and not because of it. The average middle-class still sweated over onion prices that had hit a record high that year.

Sathiyan household typified the Indian mindset. Low-risk, stable reward, fixed salary – concepts mocked at by a regular jet-setting millennial today – were revered.

Gnanasekaran, a manager at state-owned telecom giant BSNL, was posted in Zimbabwe on deputation. A proud and committed man, he had missed the birth of Sathiyan, his only son, and it would take him 10 months to get the first glimpse of Sathiyan when the latter travelled to Harare with the rest of the family. He was a hard-nosed disciplinarian who liked sports, but never saw it as a career.

In Chennai, taking care of Sathiyan and his two elder sisters – Divya and Rekha – was their mother, Malarkodi, who juggled her day job as an assistant manager at Union Bank of India with raising a hyperactive bunch of kids. A no-nonsense lady with tremendous resolve and patience, she offered respite from Gnanasekaran’s strictness, ensuring the children enjoyed in moderation.

“Dad was super strict. ‘Eat on time, sleep on time, do well at studies,’ that’s what he always told us. In Indian households, often boys do not open up to their fathers easily, and I was no different. We really dreaded his temper. Whenever we wanted something, we would go to mom. We had a comfortable childhood. We went out once in a while, but there were no lavish holidays. Me and my sisters were crazy…super energetic children who would never sit idle,” he recalls.

Once, in that seminal summer of ’98, Malarkodi got sick of Sathiyan’s mischief and tied him to a sofa. The five-year-old used all his might to drag himself with the chair and caused further nuisance. To put his boundless energy to some use, Malarkodi took him to Venugopal Chandrasekhar’s table tennis academy that had opened in the vicinity.

The journey began.

G Sathiyan Timeline Infographic by Shantanu Srivastava

Chandrasekhar, a multiple state and national champion and an Asian Games bronze medallist, spotted a natural ball-striking talent in Sathiyan and encouraged him to develop his style.

“Chandrasekhar sir had a big influence on my life at that stage. He told me that I am unique and that I must never give up my individuality as a player and as a person. He not only taught me TT, but also instilled the virtues of discipline in me. I am sure he made me a better person,” says Sathiyan of his first coach who succumbed to COVID-19 in May 2021.

As years rolled by, Chandrasekhar became a family. He would regularly apprise Gnanasekaran and Malarkodi of their son’s progress. While Sathiyan was always close to his mother, he began to develop a strange bond with his dad, who incidentally was fond of table tennis. Sathiyan’s career choice was not exactly frowned upon in the house, but everyone agreed that an engineering degree must be completed at all costs as a failsafe.

Years of conditioning in conservatism seeped into Sathiyan’s game as well. He would rarely take risks or force the pace of rallies; he would not go for winners for the fear of losing points; instead, he built his game on keeping the ball in play, which made him a very dependable returner but stunted his growth as an enforcer.

“My game was built on attrition. I think I irritated a lot of players with my returning game. Slowly, they began calling me ‘The Wall’, like Rahul Dravid sir, because the ball would never get past me,” he said.

Then, 2015 happened. Gnanasekaran’s passing broke the family. It was time for Sathiyan to step up. From a boy who had learned to ride a two-wheeler only because his dad was sick and he was required to run errands, Sathiyan, almost overnight, became the proverbial man of the house.

“I could literally feel the burden of the world coming down on me. I had to give emotional support to my mother, deal with the pain myself, and understand all the household work, documentation and other stuff.”

TT ceased to be the priority. Leaving his mother and sisters in mourning to pursue his dreams was not easy. At times, Sathiyan would find himself questioning his life and the larger purpose of existence.

“It was a very tough phase, honestly. Dad’s passing devastated us. There were lot of internal conflicts, but my mother backed me to the hilt. She wanted me to chase my dreams.”

And so, Sathiyan set out to chase his dreams. It wasn’t that simple though. He would find himself zoned out during practice sessions, sometimes between points. Subramaniam Raman, Sathiyan’s coach since 2012, watched his ward suffer quietly. Raman had lost his elder brother when the latter was in his 30s, so he could partake in Sathiyan’s pain. The best medicine, he reckoned, was to let him grieve and not rush him back into the sport.

“At times, he would arrive reasonably fine at the academy, but would break down at the table, or suddenly go blank. It is not easy for a 21-22-year-old to deal with a loss of this magnitude.

“He obviously took a break for a week or two from table tennis, and I didn’t rush him into the training either. Sometimes, if he was not feeling alright, I would just end the session and just talk to him. Sometimes, I would arrive at the academy with a great plan in my head, but we couldn’t play a single session because he was too emotionally drained out. I understood his situation, appreciated it, and respected it. Gradually, he started coming out of his grief,” Raman told Firstpost.

The road to Rio had hit a dead end, but he still had a career to shape. In his first tournament back, he partnered with Ankita Das at the Commonwealth Championships in Surat to win gold in mixed doubles. It was a cruelly poetic moment as Das too had lost her father around the same time. The two grieving paddlers joined forces just two days before the tournament and ended up beating old friend Soumyajit Ghosh and Mouma Das in the final.

Something else happened. Sathiyan, having witnessed the eternal ephemerality of life, began to think freely. The tragedy unchained him of his protected belief systems and this newfound outlook on life percolated into his game.

“It was an awakening of sorts,” recalls Sathiyan. “I realised there’s no point being too safe or circumspect in life, and in table tennis. Whatever time you have here, you must live it to the fullest, go all out. Whatever has to happen, will happen. That thinking improved my game too. I became a bit fearless. I started going for my shots in situations where I would have earlier hesitated. I brought more flair, more aggression, more daring to my game.”


Sathiyan was 11 when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore brought double trap shooting to national consciousness. The sight of a handsome armyman coolly hunting down two moving clay targets within a second was intriguing, and Sathiyan, like countless Indians, was enamoured.

However, unlike countless Indians, Sathiyan’s fascination was not a once-in-four-year dalliance. It stoked something unknown. By his own admission, he has been dreaming of five Olympic rings ever since. He knew he wanted to be there, with the best in the world, on the grandest stage, performing.

Dreams, however, can take you only this far. The gulf between dreaming of the coveted podium and actually climbing it is multilayered and manifests itself in countless tangible and intangible variables.

For years now, Sathiyan has been slowly chipping away at those layers, with the help of Raman, and top fitness and nutrition advice from some of country’s leading experts. The process, however, begins with the knowledge of self.

“Look, the kind of game I have, I enjoy playing long rallies and keeping the ball in play, but in modern TT, that can easily be counter-productive. The game at elite level is so fast that you won’t even get the time to show your ‘A’ game or artistry. I am, therefore, working on my aggressive game so that I am able to finish the rallies sooner than I usually do. And, in case the rallies build, I am already good at the long game,” says Sathiyan.

His training regimen, leading into the Olympics, is more focussed on getting more power behind his strokes and ending the rally in “three, maximum four shots.”

Coach Raman also wants to bring more variety and a degree of deception to Sathiyan’s serve and receive games, while also enhancing his coverage of the table to ensure he is in the right position to execute his strokes.

“At the Olympics, you will find Sathiyan shaping up for a forehand but will hit a drop shot instead, or looking passive in a rally but will bring out an aggressive winner out of nowhere. That’s the kind of deception we are working on. We are also working to add some variety to his serves,” Raman says.

For an efficient one-dimensional player, such transition can be tough, but Raman reckons that his ward has more or less internalised the new techniques. In fact, he tried some of these at the Japanese and the Polish leagues as well as the Olympic qualifiers.

“It takes time to develop muscle memory, but I can say that Sathiyan has got a hang of that magic feel. It’s all about polishing that and executing it at the big stage,” adds Raman.

Sathiyan follows a six-hour, six-day training routine with compatriot Anirban Ghosh at Raman High-Performance TT Centre in Chennai to chisel his skills and develop neuro-muscular coordination for newer gameplans and strokeplay.

Ghosh, a talented 22-year-old from Kolkata, has been handpicked by Sathiyan as his sparring partner. The duo goes back a long way – 2011, to be precise – when Sathiyan was an upcoming junior and Ghosh had made it to the cadet team. He spent some time last year at Sathiyan’s place before the lockdown, and shifted base to Chennai this year. Training with Sathiyan puts him in a vantage position to assess latter's progress.

“I think Sathiyan bhaiya’s game has developed a lot over the course of four-six months. There is definitely more power in his strokes, and he is moving really well too. We test his lateral movements and also play a lot of simulation matches with proper scoring and umpires. Attitude-wise, he is always right up there; never gives up, hates to lose a point, and super aggressive in his body language,” says Ghosh.

However, Sathiyan is not the finished product yet, not for Raman at least. The coach feels the 28-year-old can come unstuck against good players, and lack of competition hasn’t helped either.

“There are areas to work on, but we still have time, so no need to panic. Given the situation we are in, I think his preparations are going the best they can,” he says.

Raman’s veiled sense of foreboding is indicative of the gradual shift in table tennis over the years. Like all sports, particularly hockey, badminton, and tennis, TT’s evolution has translated into it becoming a progressively power-based sport. The service speeds have increased, the rallies have become shorter, players have become stronger, and technology has ensured there are no trade secrets.

Raman, a former national champion and Sydney 2000 Olympian, emphasises on the need to adapt. This means developing an all-round game, and especially having a dependable backhand in the armoury. Considered a secondary weapon not long ago, backhand winners are not uncommon in the international circuit anymore and paddlers are employing it with increasing control and menace.

“Earlier, players never had a strong backhand; maybe one in 10,000 players would have a really good backhand. TT was largely forehand-dominated. Now, the sport is played on both flanks. You have to possess a solid backhand along with a good forehand.

“Modern game demands you have to be good over the table (near the net), on top of the table (edge of the table), and behind the table (for deep returns on both flanks). From the outside, TT players don’t appear to have exaggerated feet movement, but there are a lot of small, explosive movements that help you reach the ball. The speed of the game has increased quite a lot as well. So obviously when the speed increases, body balance goes for a toss, and that is where training comes in,” explains Raman.


Finding the sweet spot between power and suppleness is presumably tricky, given that in common consciousness, power is often incorrectly interpreted as bulk. From lightweight boxers and wrestlers to fast bowlers, athletes across the spectrum vie for the perfect balance between clean muscle gains (not to be equated with strength) and fluidity of movements. Sathiyan’s skeletal frame demands he puts on some muscle without compromising on the quick movements that form the lifeblood of his sport.

Enter Ramji Srinivasan. Among India’s most well-known fitness exponents, Ramji can also stake the claim to be the country’s premier fitness myth buster.

“We are a country obsessed with weights. Half of the people don’t know why they are doing those deadlifts and Olympic lifts, and they end up injuring themselves. There are many ways to skin a cat, and so weight training is not the only way to build power or strength,” says the man who has lent his expertise to the World Cup-winning Indian cricket team, Narain Karthikeyan, Sharath Kamal, among others. He trained Sathiyan’s coach Raman many summers ago and has now completed a circle of sorts by shaping Sathiyan for seven years now.

His first impression of Sathiyan was that of a “scrawny kid with no power, no flexibility, no muscle coordination."

“What he always had though was a desire to learn and do well,” says Ramji.

Sathiyan’s transformation from that skinny youngster to a deceptively strong young man has been incremental and based on advanced science and a diligent interpretation of data.

Table tennis demands explosive power, aerobic strength, quick reflexes, and fast lateral movements. The strength needed in shots is not a function of toned forearms, bulging biceps, or well-defined deltoids alone. Power is generated bottom-up, and so Ramji has been working on Sathiyan’s legs. The leg workout is not overtly focussed on building big quads but accumulating power through a series of explosive workouts such as single-leg deadlifts, double-leg deadlifts, and deadlifts with unstable equilibrium.

“We are working on a combination of strength-to-power transfer, footwork, hand-eye coordination, reaction time, etc. Sathiyan’s strength work is combined with lateral agility work. We do a lot of plyometrics and explosive work. But just doing plyo drills won’t help, they have to combine with movement patterns. So, we throw in lateral plyo jumps, forward and backward movements to help his footwork. You have to have the right footwork to generate that level of power,” explains Ramji.

COVID-19 restrictions have meant that cardiovascular workouts have taken a hit, and Ramji reckons Sathiyan would have been “at least five-ten percent better” in terms of aerobic strength if he had access to the gym and outdoor sprints.

“His aerobic strength definitely could have been a lot better. He is a hard-working guy so he is doing his best, but you can’t substitute sprints with indoor spot-running. You can’t make elite athletes run on roads because that may injure them.”

Ramji’s custom-made “multi-angled, multi-dimensional workouts,” aimed to target functional muscle groups specific to table tennis, have also largely been a non-starter, thanks to the stop-start nature of restrictions.

“The idea was to enhance Sathiyan’s forehands, backhands, lateral moves, jumping, landing and moving in one motion, hip-shoulder position, explosive jumps, among other things. These workouts are geared towards specific strokeplay and movements during the game. They help a player get back to the position quickly, stay low, and so on. But you can’t do them at home since they need proper equipment and supervision,” he says.

Not all is lost though. Six days a week at 6:30 am, Sathiyan switches on his laptop, looks at the training schedule, and proceeds to punish himself. At times, Ramji appears on video calls to monitor the session, trying his best to notice flaws in form, technique, or patterns.

“He has come a long way, even if you compare his progress from last year. His body structure is such that he won’t put on much mass, but he is very nimble on his feet, and he has developed a good level of explosive power that helps him put the body behind the ball. His recovery is usually fast, and his body responds to workouts well. The start-stop nature of training doesn’t help because you can’t do the same workouts at home, but in the circumstances, he has done a commendable job. We are currently in maintenance mode, which means sticking to basics, staying in the comfort zone, maintaining the load, not trying anything new,” he explains.

About 350 kilometres west, sitting in the Bengaluru office of his Qua Nutrition clinic, Ryan Fernando is a happy man. Considered among the country’s best nutritionists – his roster includes the likes of Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Sushil Kumar, among others – Fernando decides what goes into Sathiyan’s body. It is of little surprise that Sathiyan’s growth as a player and on the rankings board over the past couple of years has coincided with his association with Fernando, whose diet plans are in sync with Sathiyan’s preference for home-cooked South Indian food.

“Sathiyan came to us with an open mind. He was committed to do what it takes to become the best TT player he can, so he understood there will be a diet he will have to adhere to. We designed his regimen based on the understanding that 80 percent of his consumption will be home-cooked food,” says Fernando.

So a recommendation for butterhead lettuce and beetroot juice is accompanied by a suggestion to add extra turmeric in sambhar and rasam for its excellent anti-inflammatory properties. Dried blueberries and dried cranberries are also an important part of his intake, as are whey and vegan protein supplements to go with his carb-heavy staples.

Fernando keeps track of Sathiyan’s eating habits through monthly calls, while dietitian Achsah has a call with him every week. The idea is to get him reporting back on his nutritional compliance.

“I find him to be an extremely non-fussy athlete. He never complains, even when he is travelling. When he was in Japan, he would send pictures of labels of certain probiotic drinks, asking me if he could drink them. So, he is open to experiment and willing to try whatever works for him,” says Fernando.

There are occasional cheat days though. That’s when he likes to indulge in biriyani and some chocolate. “He doesn’t really have a sweet tooth, and he doesn’t crave cheat days. He is generally very mindful of what he eats because he was really shaken by his father’s demise who got diabetes at a very young age,” says Fernando.


Tohoku region, located in Japan’s Honshu island in the country’s north-east, is known for its mountains, limestone caves, volcanoes, forests, and hot water springs. Ten years back, it bore maximum brunt of the most devastating earthquake – that triggered a giant tsunami – in the country’s recorded history, and is still paying the economic cost of the destruction.

They have an unlikely ally to help them wriggle out of a decade of economic slowdown. Monarch birch trees that forest the region are being used to manufacture the tables that’ll be used for all TT competitions at the Tokyo Olympics.

The tables are being produced by San-Ei Corporation at their ITTF-approved Hokkaido factory, and will be called Motif. This is San-Ei and monarch birch’s second successive Olympics; the company made its Games debut in Rio by outclassing China-based DHS (Double Happiness Sports) in a competitive bidding process.

“We started this project with the same idea as our previous Rio 2016 Olympic table. We wanted to support the recovery of the Tohoku region which was struck by the big tsunami in 2011. To help their economy, we procure all the wooden materials from trees grown in North East Japan. So the whole Motif production starts from sourcing high-quality wood from there,” Kesao Yoshizawa, Director of the San-Ei Table Tennis Table Factory was quoted as saying last year.

The company produces about 14,000 tables a year, and none of the Olympic-edition Motifs have been used at a major competition, apart from the European Championships in Warsaw that concluded on 27 June.

The widely-used STAG and DHS tables in India also vary in behaviour, but the Japanese Olympic-edition tables are a complete novelty.

“The STAG tables are grainy and offer greater spin. The DHS tables are flatter and offer even bounce and less spin,” says Sathiyan, who procured a black-top STAG table ahead of the Nationals and Olympic qualifiers.

The Indian version of STAG and DHS tables is known to be quicker and offer more bounce. Raman likens them to a “Perth pitch where the ball flies off the surface” while Ghosh, who has played in some international tourneys abroad on STAG and DHS tables, also feels that the ones used outside India are slower.

“The Chinese tables are generally slower, and the Europeans play on faster tables. However, no two kinds of tables are alike. Even broadly fast tables vary in pace, spin and bounce. Of whatever I could gauge by watching European Championships, the Olympic tables will be on the slower side. But I can't be sure as long as I have not used it.

“The difference between different TT tables is the same between a cricket pitch in Wankhede Stadium and the one at Chepauk. Even the hard courts of Miami and Cincinnati vary in behaviour, so the tables that appear all the same from outside differ from each other,” says Raman, who calls himself “an expert in reading tables.”

Last summer, Sathiyan imported a robot to get used to extra spin and varying pace of serves, cranking the machine upto 120 balls per minute. Next step was to get the Olympic-style table to condition himself to the surface. In November, Raman and Sathiyan decided to get it, and as of 28 June, the table was in transit; it had left the Japanese shores and had reached Singapore and is expected to reach Chennai in the first week of July.

Getting used to a new table demands an astute reading of the surface and designing a gameplan keeping in mind own and opponent’s styles.

“Even if we get two weeks of practice, that will be enough. We train six-seven hours a day, so that’s roughly 40 hours. For a player like Sathiyan, 30-40 hours will be enough to acclimatise. Then, we can also cut down on his fitness routines in consultation with Ramji to say, 30-40 minutes of explosive workout, and use more time on the table. If we can log 100 hours on the new table, Sathiyan will develop the required muscle memory easily,” says the coach.

Over the past year, Raman’s focus has been to add dimensions to Sathiyan’s game and make him an “all-surface player.”

“Once he has the required skills, he can adjust to any surface. As of today, he is very close to where I want him to be. Of course, the pandemic has had its effect in the sense that there have not been many competitions to test him, but that’s not in our control.”

What’s in their control though is scientific preparation, and aided by technology, Butterfly – Sathiyan’s equipment manufacturer and sponsor – have provided him a racquet custom-made to augment power while offering the desired control.

“We have changed his racquet blade to a faster blade with more control. We have also done some trimming and changes on the rubber that he's using on both the flanks on the forehand and backhand side,” informs Raman.

The rubber Sathiyan is using now is Dignics 09C on the forehand side which is known to be stickier and offer greater spin. He also changed his racquet head during the lockdown and moved to Butterfly’s Zang Jike Super ZLC that gives him more control and good speed.

“I used this equipment at the Nationals and the Olympic qualifiers, and the results have been good,” says Sathiyan.

“Honestly, I can’t complain. I have the best coach, the best trainer, the best equipment. All I need to do now is play to the best of my ability, and if I am able to do that, I’ll be happy.”

The target that Raman has set for him is a quarter-final appearance. “Beyond that, it is anybody’s game. A lot of variables come into play at that stage – pressure, draw, form, and so on. So far, whatever targets I have set for him, he has overachieved them by a fair margin. We are not bothered about reputation and pedigree. I believe Sathiyan will breach the top-10 barrier in a couple of years,” says Raman.

Before that, he has a small matter of dealing with the Olympics. The dream that germinated 17 years back in front of a TV set in Chennai came to fruition in March this year when he defeated Sharath Kamal and Pakistan’s Muhammad Rameez in Doha to finally seal his spot for the Olympics.

The moment was a culmination of a lifetime of sacrifices and countless hours of putting his mind and body to the test. All those years of toil in nameless competitions with sub-standard facilities, the lonely days in cold Europe, losing his father to sarcoma, the life-changing push from mother…it all came together in his moment of vindication.

He had a long video call with his mother and sisters that night, and the family broke down. Across Doha and Chennai and Prague (where one of his elder sisters is based), confined in little boxes in their smartphones, they recalled their years of loss and longing.

The sense of loss still gnaws at him, but it has made him a more compassionate and empathetic person. “That’s why I could relate to the hardships of people during COVID-19 crises or the protests in Japan against the hosting of Olympics. I have lost someone I loved, so I can understand their pain.”

He also quietly takes care of all training and personal expenses of Anirban Ghosh, his training partner, since Ghosh’s father – who owns a little mobile shop in Kolkata – is out of business. “He is like an elder brother to me in every sense. He is the one who coaxed me to come to Chennai and train under Raman sir without bothering about the expenses. He is a wonderful player, but an even greater human being,” recalls Ghosh.

“You can’t be a good sportsperson without trying to become a good human being. Dad’s passing made me a better person, but frankly, I will trade anything just to get him back. Tokyo is an opportunity to turn a corner in my life. It means a lot to my family that has gone through hell. I can’t be readier,” Sathiyan says with a wistful smile.

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