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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

How the Tokyo Olympics loss made the table tennis star Sathiyan overhaul his game

A player known for his long rallies has now become audacious to go for quicker points and shed his reticence to embrace aggression.

Written by Anil Dias |
Updated: June 28, 2022 6:54:39 pm
Almost a year on, Sathiyan is a changed player. “We're going into a 2.0 version of Sathiyan,” he declares.

So stung was G Sathiyan by his second-round exit at the Tokyo Olympics that he went into a deep introspection mode, watching the videos of his defeat ‘endless times’ with his coach Subramaniam Raman. “Maybe, the occasion and the nerves got to me,” India’s top-ranked men’s singles table tennis player says. “I’ve only learnt lessons from it.”

Almost a year on, Sathiyan is a changed player. “We’re going into a 2.0 version of Sathiyan,” he declares.

Sathiyan 2.0, he says, is a culmination of a myriad of small changes, including a more aggressive mindset and curbing his natural conservative instincts. But in essence, the player who never tired of indulging in a long rally now targets a quick end to the point, even if it means doing something risky and audacious.

The outcome is visible. Last November, when he was still introducing the changes to his game, Sathiyan had lost rather timidly to Slovenia’s Jorgic Darko in a World Table Tennis Contender match. In a re-match between the two last week, the Indian stunned the world number 6 and reigning European champion to record one of the biggest wins of his career.

Sathiyan, in his Twitter post after the win, called it a ‘huge upset’. But he was barely surprised by the result. “He (Darko) has one of the best backhands in the world so we were focusing on the forehand. I had to start aggressively to put him under pressure,” Sathiyan tells The Indian Express. “I went for the shots taking some risks. That is the only way out when you play a top player. When I won the second game, I could see the momentum shift. I started to hit the balls much better. I felt I was a much better player than when I played him in Slovenia (last November).”

When Raman and Sathiyan, following their post-mortem of the Tokyo defeat, realised that the 29-year-old had to get more aggressive and take risks, they faced a small hurdle: aggression, Sathiyan says, didn’t come naturally to him.

“Being from a South Indian family, I come from a safe setup,” he laughs. “It was a very personal trait to be more consistent, to not miss the ball. That’s how I’ve been groomed. My childhood coach used to say if the opponent plays 100 balls, you play 101 balls. It was good at that point in time, of course.”

The approach is different now – Sathiyan is training to keep rallies short, be more counter-attacking and not be scared of going for a winner. The focus, he adds, is to kill the rally in the first three or four shots. “We’re training in such a way that I have to play only 3 balls and make sure the 4th doesn’t come back,” he says. “I’ve become a more counter-attacking aggressive player now.”

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It’s one of the ‘biggest changes’ Sathiyan is trying to make to his style; a realisation that dawned upon him post-Olympics. Sathiyan had always been good in long rallies, a style he adopted for a long time and one that also yielded results as testified by his rapid growth in the last five or so years.

“But to get to the next level, the top-20, top-10, I need to crack that serve and receive,” the world number 35 says. “It’s about being aggressive there. You need to have better quality aggression with consistency. That’s the key.”

To be more aggressive, one needs the physical strength to back it up too, something Sathiyan was lacking. The pandemic, however, changed that.

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“In general, we’ve worked a lot on physical stability and improved my strength and power. I’ve been very good with speed and agility but packing it up with power in my strokes was needed and I was able to do that thanks to the pandemic,” he says.

Strong support team

Back in 2012 when he was ranked in the 400s and had begun coaching under Raman, Sathiyan says he would laugh when his new coach told him his target was to be in the top 50. He achieved that in the next six years and Sathiyan says it’s only because his team has catered to all aspects of his game.

“While Raman sir is brilliant, I have an excellent fitness coach in Ramji Srinivasan. We’ve also worked tremendously on mental conditioning thanks to coach Vaibhav Agashe. We also have a dietician apart from the physios.”

Yoga is also something he’s added to his training regimen that he says has helped him a lot. “I do about 1.5 hours of strength training, then an hour of yoga and five hours of skill training on a daily basis. Yoga is something I added during the pandemic and it has given my game a massive boost,” he says.

Focus on CWG

There’s been a lot of negative publicity for India’s table tennis team ahead of next month’s Commonwealth Games with players going to court, challenging their exclusion from the squad.

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Sathiyan says he’s unperturbed. “My performance in Zagreb shows that I don’t let what’s going on around affect my focus on the table. I’m only focusing on the controllable,” he says.

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Does the negativity affect the team in any way, though? “We have pressure and that’s because everyone expects us to perform well. This pressure is a privilege. Frankly, as a team, we’re more mature. Playing England at home is going to be interesting and we’re ready for the challenge.”

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First published on: 27-06-2022 at 10:17:25 pm

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