An old ‘feeling’ embraced Gnanasekaran Sathiyan as he entered the table tennis hall in Yokohama, Japan, last fortnight. It was his first time competing at the Asian Cup, a spot earned by the remarkable form he’s hit that has seen his world ranking rise rapidly to no 28—the highest any Indian has ever been.
Over the past few months, he’s been competing in tournaments with a mixture of big-name and minnow opponents. But during this sojourn at the Far East, that old feeling of being the overwhelming underdog—a tag he had befriended when he became only the second Indian to win a tour event in 2016— resurfaced. It’s a feeling he cherished, and it’s a feeling that helped him finish with at an impressive sixth place at the Asian Cup.
“Being the underdog means I have no stress, no tension, there’s nothing to lose,” he says. “It means I can take risks and try something new. That’s what I did.”
In a field that included some of the highest ranked paddlers in world – including the likes of world no 1 Fan Zhendong and world no 4 Tomokazu Harimoto – Sathiyan decided to try out a new serve.
“I’ve tried it during practice, but when I’m playing matches against lower ranked opponents, the priority is to win. So I stick to the serve I already have,” he says. “But these big guys would kill me if I tried the stock serve. So I thought I might as well try this new one.”
All of a sudden there was more more spin on the ball, it’s hit at a greater pace and is placed much deeper than what Sathiyan is known to serve. The results were instantaneous.
“The opponents were thrown-off because they didn’t expect the ball to move so much, come so quicker or even that deep,” he says. “They had to take a step back while receiving just to get some reading of it, but it had really rattled them.”
The first big scalp was the veteran Chih-Yuan Chuang of Taiwan, a former world no 3, who Sathiyan beat 3-0 in the group stage. Later in the draw for the 5-8 positions, the 26-year-old got the better of world no 14 (former world no 6) Chun Ting Wong of Hong Kong.
“This tournament gave me a very different kind of experience,” he says. “There were 10-12 players ranked better than me, but that just helped me play much more aggressive. And the serve worked too.”
The biggest takeaway for the Chennai-lad though, wasn’t the two big wins. It was that one loss in the quarterfinal. Against a certain three-time Olympic gold medallist Ma Long. Sathiyan remembers noticing the former World no 1 sipping on some juice, but closely monitoring the Indian’s practice session with his compatriot Achanta Sharath Kamal early in the tournament. And then when the pair met at the table, Sathiyan threw everything he had at the Chinese master, including the new serve. An unlikely win was never on the cards for Sathiyan, but he made sure Ma had to earn his spot in the semi-final.
There was an incident with Ma leading 8-6 in the fourth set (the Chinese was up 2-1). So strong was the pressure the Indian had been piling on the 10-time World Championship gold medallist, that Ma called for a ‘time-out.’
“He’s the best player in the world, and my weapons were hurting him,” Sathiyan explains. “He was leading at that point, but he still needed to take a break to try and break down my momentum. That moment will forever will be a badge of honour for me.”
Ma went on to lose out in the finals to Fan. But Sathiyan’s was the most unexpected result in the tournament – the only player outside the top 25 to have finished in the top 6 at this edition of the Asian Cup.
But it’s more than just the unprecedented result that India’s highest ranked paddler takes away from the tournament.
“In the past few months I’ve made my backhand a weapon. Now nobody challenges me with that,” he explains. “Now I got a chance to try out the new serve, and it dented the best and gave me more confidence. It’s a new weapon for me. And I know now that I genuinely belong with this group.”
In the coming week he will be competing in Budapest, Hungary, for the World Team Championship. Last year, in that event, he was a part of the Indian team that finished in the top 15 for the first time in three decades. But after the performance in Yokohama, what he leaves behind is that old friend, that old ‘feeling.’ No longer will the underdog tag be his to bear.