The small-built Gnanasekaran Sathiyan bent low, clenched his fists and emptied his lungs in a roar. He’d repeat the gestures, throwing in a few punches in the air, spare a moment to shake hands with his vanquished opponent, and then continue revelling in the second successive upset he’d caused at the ITTF Austrian Open.
In an event that featured the world’s top 60 table tennis stars, Sathiyan, the world no 35 had to start off in the preliminary round, play out of his skin just to make it to the main draw. He did just that. In the final qualifier, he squared off against world no 17 Sang Eun Jeong of South Korea, overcame a two-game deficit to pull off a stunning 6-11, 13-11, 11-3, 11-8, 11-6, 11-6 win.
And in the 25-year-old’s first ever match in the main draw of the tournament, he came up with another major upset, a 4-11, 11-9, 11-9, 8-11, 6-11, 11-9, 11-7 win over former world no 7 Marcos Freitas of Portugal.
“The excitement behind the roar says it all,” Sathiyan said on twitter about his celebration.
These are the biggest wins the Chennai-lad has picked up in a career that had been halted for three years due to an engineering degree he pursued. However, he has done his bit to cover ground when he got back to the tour in 2013. Since the start of the 2018 he has worked specifically on an area of his game he deemed his weakest, the backhand.
“The game has gotten so much faster now, but I didn’t have much power on my backhand,” he told The Indian Express from Linz, Austria. “That was my weakness. I could always get the ball back into play, but they’d keep hitting it down the backhand to make an opening for a winner. I’ve worked a lot on my return game and getting power behind my backhand.”
For the off-season at the end of last year, a special emphasis on improving his strength was in order. Additionally, he tried his luck with adding a harder rubber on the backhand side, the same he had on his forehand. There was also a matter of knowing what to do in the crucial stages of a game, when the score would go to the 9-9.
“Getting that composure was very important for me,” he says. “It made a difference here because those situations came up very often and I was calm and knew what I needed to do to get past it.”
The fresh changes to his game have made him a more all-round player, one with the ability to play decisive shots from both wings. Naturally, the increased work on the backhand in particular started to surprise his opponents. It’s become a weapon now, one that has earned him a silver and bronze (men’s doubles and mixed doubles respectively) at the Commonwealth Games, a bronze in the men’s team event of the Asian Games, and helped him propel India to its first ever top 15 finish at the World Team Championships in three decades.
“They all targeted my backhand,” he says. “But then I was hitting it back with much more zip and speed. Nobody expected that from me.”
Even when he served for the match against Freitas, the current world no 16 returned to Sathiyan’s backhand. The stellar run lasted till the round of 16 however, when he faced world no 2 Xin Xu of China.
But it isn’t the loss he’s taking much into consideration. After all, he’s played a top level tournament and come up with wins over two top 20 players.
“These results are probably something that I needed to take that next step forward,” he says. “I’ve been knocking on the door, and now I know that I can beat top 20, top 10 players. I’ve done it. It just gives me that much more confidence because I know I’m in the right direction.”
For the coming few months he’s planned on working more on building up some muscle. “For now,” he says. “That’s probably the biggest thing I need. For now.”