There was a different approach to the training sessions for Sathiyan Gnanasekaran this time, as he prepared for the World Table Tennis Championships. At 30, he’s a seasoned campaigner and a constant in the Indian team when it comes to playing at the bigger competitions the sport has to offer. But over the past few years, more than his prowess in singles – which is of high calibre – it is his partnership with Manika Batra in mixed doubles that has been coming under the spotlight. They are the world No 5 team after all.

And at the upcoming World Championships in Durban, that start on Saturday, they will be a duo to watch.

For five days before the team could assemble in Bengaluru for the preparation camp, Sathiyan and Batra held their own special training program for the mixed doubles event.

“We have a great chance of winning medals in doubles events, in the Olympics or World Championships,” Sathiyan told Scroll. “There’s always a bigger chance of winning a doubles medal or a team event as compared to a singles event. It’s important to try and push that. At the end of the day, a medal is a medal.”

When it comes to doubles in table tennis, there’s a certain hurdle. In sports like lawn tennis or badminton, there are doubles specialists who travel together, play the same events, and can train together. In table tennis though, there’s no such thing as a doubles specialist, and so scheduling becomes a problem. Yet it’s something Sathiyan and Batra have tried to fix in their own way.

Sathiyan trains in Chennai while Batra is mostly based in Hyderabad. But they’ve scripted their own individual training regimen for doubles to work on during their time apart.

“Unlike doubles in other sports, if you play the one ball your partner has to play the next ball. So you have to keep moving – you have to hit, move so your partner can play, and then move back. It’s a lot more challenging because you have to be in sync when it comes to the movement,” he explained.

“In our own training programs, we practiced doubles movement patterns when we were alone. And then even the receiving is different from singles. Serving and receiving is from the right. We practiced on those areas.

“When we meet then we share ideas – maybe something I’m comfortable doing is not good for her. So, then we fine tune, and that helps us play with more clarity and conviction, and we’re getting better as a pair. The time in Hyderabad was very helpful.”

Their rise up the mixed doubles rankings has been rapid ever since they decided to pair up post the Tokyo Olympics. They even reached the quarterfinal at the 2021 World Championships, but now they’re aiming to push a step further.

Thriving under pressure

There are expectations, but Sathiyan asserted that he’s learned to deal with it. So much so that he feels he thrives under pressure.

“After the Olympics I’ve started to understand what pressure is, how to go about it, how to deal with it,” he said.

Winning the bronze medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games was a litmus test, but it helped me bring out the game. Now I’ve started to feel that I play better under pressure. Competing under tough circumstances, it’s what you play for.”

Earlier this year as well he managed to deal with heavy expectations and come out on top when he won his second Senior National title.

With Indian table tennis star Achanta Sharath Kamal opting out of the event, Sathiyan asserted that anything short of winning the title would have been a failure.

Also read: Sreeja Akula clinches singles, doubles titles; G Sathiyan wins singles gold at table tennis nationals

“I needed to win, and I was playing against a strong group of players with nothing to lose, who want to beat you. I had that pressure, but it was a very convincing win,” he added.

“I felt in control, I never felt this confident playing in India before. Of course, some matches were close, the youngsters were pushing very hard. But I was happy with the level I brought out. To win it like this, it was a big confidence booster when getting into an important year with the World Championships and Asian Games.”

Mentally recharged

An important year, yet one that finds the Chennai-lad in a calm mental space.

The star paddler, who had reached as high as world No 24 in singles – the highest ever achieved by an Indian – got married late last year and took over a month off from the sport. Through his role as an athlete, the sport has been all that he has known. But now in his new role as a husband, he has found an escape.

“It’s good to talk to someone about something apart of table tennis. People in my life, we only talk table tennis, even my mother. But it’s good to have that change. (My wife) talks about her office activities, and it feels really good to have conversations apart from the sport. It really relaxes my mind,” he said.

“We’ve been out for a few movies, and it’s good to have some time outside of sport to get the focus and mental energy. It wasn’t easy to get back to playing after the break, but I was in a very good space mentally, which helped me focus.”

That steely focus and determination, he hopes, will come to the fore when the World Championships start. The last time, he and Batra were just a step short from becoming the first players from post-independence India to win a medal at the competition. This time, mentally and tactically, Sathiyan is raring to go further.

The World Championships will take place in Durban, South Africa, starting on Saturday, May 20. Here are the details.

Indian squad for the World Championships

Men’s singles: G Sathiyan, Achanta Sharath Kamal, Harmeet Desai, Manush Shah

Women’s singles: Manika Batra, Sreeja Akula, Sutirtha Mukherjee, Reeth Rishya

Men’s doubles: Achanta Sharath Kamal and G Sathiyan; Manush Shah and Harmeet Desai

Women’s doubles: Manika Batra and Archana Kamath; Sreeja Akula and Diya Chitale

Mixed doubles: G Sathiyan and Manika Batra; Manav Thakkar and Archana Kamath