Updated: May 13, 2021 7:59:58 am
Kamlesh Mehta received a message on Saturday asking him to get in touch with veteran table tennis coach Venugopal Chandrasekar.
“He had just been admitted to hospital,” Mehta recalls the conversation. “He said that he was alright, that he just had a mild fever and was doing this only as a precaution.”
Chandrasekar, or Chandra as he was fondly called, had had his share of illnesses and another hospital visit seemed almost routine. But a day later, Mehta says, he was shifted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) as his condition deteriorated further and he passed away on Wednesday morning due to COVID-19-related complications, aged 63.
Chandrasekar’s legacy in Indian table tennis runs right from Mehta – his first great adversary in the early 1980s – to Gnanasekaran Sathiyan – his greatest student and the star of the current Indian team.
Sathiyan remembers a conversation over phone with Chandrasekar in February. The 28-year-old had finally won his first senior national championship after losing in three earlier finals.
“I had lost an U-12 national final many years back, but Chandra sir told me to keep my head up, and that one day I’ll win the senior title,” Sathiyan recalls. “He was the first to call me when I won the senior title, and reminded me of that incident all those years ago.” Chandrasekar was also there when Mehta won the first of his eight national titles. They played each other for the first time in the senior national final in 1981. Chandrasekar, elder by two years, emerged victorious 3-0. A year later, Mehta won his first title by beating his senior in the final by the same scoreline.
Fate ruled otherwise
It seemed like the start of a great rivalry that would bring out the best in both players – still in their early 20s – for years to come. But for the botched knee surgery that ended it all for Chandrasekar.
A routine operation in 1984 left the then 25-year-old in a month-long coma and with deteriorated eyesight. He did win a lawsuit against the hospital years later, but his playing career was over. Yet he remained determined to stay connected to the sport and moved into coaching.
Chandrasekar had a role in shaping the future of Arjuna Award winners and multiple-national champions Chetan Baboor and Subramaniam Raman.
Then in September 1998, he met a five-year-old Sathiyan, who would go on to become the highest-ranked Indian, reaching the World No. 24 mark.
“There were so many people early on who’d tell me to play passive, or go for placement, don’t attack… But Chandra sir told me to play the way I wanted. He said, ‘this is your style, don’t change it. But we will improve it’,” Sathiyan says. “Later, I realised that he too was an attacking player. He recognised the talent I had in variations and placement. So, he kept pushing me in that direction.”
Sathiyan’s style mimicked Chadrasekar’s own. The veteran coach had a big forehand that improved when the Indian team trained in Japan in 1975. “He was a master on that forehand, it was attractive and mesmerising. He didn’t have much power, but the variations, deception and trickery made him such a flashy player. And he did it so consistently,” Mehta says. “He was a great risk-taker. Any time in the match, especially on crucial points, he’d come up with something unexpected and win. His playing style, and especially his footwork was so smooth.
“But he was also a master strategist. He’d beat you mentally and with his strategy, not with power. I had beaten him a few times before I played him in that national final in 1981. But in that final, before I could figure out what he was doing he had already finished the match.”
Chandrasekar’s flamboyance was what pulled people to stadiums. Tales of how fans crowded indoor arenas did the rounds well after his playing days. Sathiyan remembers hearing stories of one tournament where a ‘lathi charge’ order had to be issued because there were just too many people trying to get a glimpse of him.
“Till practically his last breath, he was committed to the game. The day he was admitted to hospital, he was on his way home from his academy when he started to feel feverish and weak,” Mehta adds.
Chandrasekar’s will always remain a story of what could have been. What he could have achieved had that surgery gone well. What could have been if he was still there to nurture future table tennis champions. And for a person who was known for his wit, his running gag with Sathiyan will remain unfulfilled.
“Over the last few years, he had been asking me when I’m going to get married,” adds Sathiyan. “(Whenever it happens) unfortunately he won’t be there.”
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