At the table tennis hall in Chengdu, the Indian national team was allowed to train under the strict condition that no photographs or video recording would be permitted. “We weren’t even allowed to take out our mobile phones from our bags,” says Gnanasekaran Sathiyan.
The Indian team had travelled to China in August for an Asian Games preparatory camp, hosted by the dominant Chinese team.
On the first day of the camp, the visitors were greeted with a poster plastered on the wall inside the training area. It was a collage with the photographs of international players that were deemed China’s biggest threats at the Asian Games. That list included a few South Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese, and the evergreen Achanta Sharath Kamal. And Sathiyan. “This was a Chinese tradition. They put up a poster like this before every major tournament,” Sathiyan says.
“Either way, if the biggest team in the world was seeing me as a threat, that means I must be doing something good. I’m very proud to be seen as a threat.”
The Chinese knew there was something dangerous about the wiry lefty from Chennai who had been pulling off shock wins over high-ranked opponents. And when the new ITTF rankings came out in January, Sathiyan had pushed the bar further than any other Indian. The 26-year-old became the new world no 28 – the highest rank ever achieved by an Indian player.
“I’m elated,” says Sathiyan about reaching the new mark. “It’s about time. I’m not entirely surprised, but I’m still happy. Now the aim is to get to the top 20.”
In his list of accomplishments, Sathiyan stands as only the second Indian man – after Kamal (whose best rank is 30) – to have won a tour event when he triumphed at the Belgian Open in 2016. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games he returned with a gold in the men’s team event, silver in men’s doubles and bronze in mixed doubles. At the Asian Games, he won bronze in the men’s team event – the first ever Asiad medal for India in the sport. Shortly after that, at the Austrian Open, he beat the likes of former world no.15 Sang Eun Jeong and former world no.7 Marcos Freitas.
Looking back at the camp in Chengdu, the restrictions the hosts had put in place started to make sense. Sathiyan was given a good deal of practice time with the likes of world no.1 Fan Zhendong and world no.3 Lin Gaoyuan. But they weren’t just helping him in training. The Chinese wanted to understand what the crafty Indian was all about without giving him a chance to take videos of the hosts for analysis.
“The Chinese had set up cameras all over the hall and they were recording all the sessions,” explains Subramaniam Raman, former national champion and Sathiyan’s coach. “He’s a smart player and can be quite unpredictable in his shots. That’s why they recorded it all to study every move he tends to make.”
How a better backhand helps
Former national champion S Raman explains how improving the backhand has helped Sathiyan succeed in the fast-paced sport. For a player like Sathiyan, who does not have that much lower body strength, it is difficult to have the speed needed to always convert a backhand shot into a forehand. Anyway, at the speed in which the game is played these days, it’s very difficult for any player to go for those conversions often. That makes the backhand a very relevant shot. Sathiyan has worked hard and has made his backhand a strong weapon. He can return a defensive shot with an aggressive backhand, return an attacking shot with a counterattacking backhand, and when required, he has the skill to play a good defensive backhand too. But it isn’t just about hitting the ball back with power and putting it anywhere on the table. His game is about mixing brain with brawn. So on his attacking backhand, he knows where he wants to place the ball and gets it there. His backhand is now as strong as his forehand. In a recent study on where the top 15 players place their backhand shots, about 65-70 per cent of the time the shot is played cross-court, 20 per cent down the line, and 10 per cent down the middle. Sathiyan falls in that category, but he’s a very deceptive player. He has the ability to change direction whenever he wants, when the opponent least expects it. Being a left-hander would give him some tactical advantage over opponents, but that’s neutralised by the speed of the sport. But now that he’s started hitting strongly off both wings, it’s a matter of time before his ranking improves.-As told to Shahid Judge
Those ‘moves’ though have been evolving ever since he returned full-time to the tour in 2014. Back then he was known for his ability to get the ball back in play. And that was it. “He was basically a very defensive player; not a chopper, but he’d just return back and not play attacking shots,” explains 2008 Olympian Neha Aggarwal. “That counter-attacking element is something he added in his game 2015 onwards. He’s also worked very well on his fitness and has become explosive and quick on the table. And he’s always been very clever in the way he sees the game, the way he forms strategies, the way he knows the weakness and strengths of the opponent. He just needed weapons, which he has added now.”
That’s a far cry from what he used to be when he was first promoted to the senior national camp ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Despite taking a break from the sport for four years after that, to pursue an engineering degree, Sathiyan has made up for lost time.
“When I met him first in 2012, he had a very unorthodox style,” recalls Raman. “His strokes were shabby, there was no footwork, and no great power in his shots. What he did have was remarkable timing and a good reading of the game. So it was just a matter of working on the technique and physique.”
Sathiyan’s latest endeavour is to make his backhand as potent a weapon as his forehand. The results have been encouraging, for it helped him in getting the big wins in Austria, and also in that upset team win over the Japanese.
In that crucial quarterfinal tie, Sathiyan was to play former world no.9 Kento Matsudaira in the fourth rubber. The tactics were set: since the Japanese ace had a big forehand, Sathiyan had to play aggressively to his backhand. “He did just that. He was mixing the pace, mixing the spin, but just attack the backhand,” Raman says. “Sathiyan could only do this because he’d learned how to play attacking shots from his own backhand.”
That win secured India’s first-ever table tennis medal at the Asian Games.
It’s been a while coming, but Sathiyan is now among the top names in the sport. No longer is he a lower-rung unknown playing as an underdog. Now there are responsibilities, and there is the respect of the big guns.
During a match in the German league in September, where Sathiyan plays for ASV Grünwettersbach, against world no.5 Timo Boll’s Borussia Düsseldorf, the German veteran walked up to the Indian to congratulate him on his performance.
But a month earlier, in China, it was the bonding with Zhendong that really gave Sathiyan the impression that the top players had welcomed him. “We chatted and during the practice sessions he even let me use his racquet to experience what kind of ply and rubber he uses so I know if I want to change something,” he says. “These big guys would not have bothered being friendly with any of the lower ranked players. But now they know who I am.”
Because Sathiyan is a threat.