India won 66 medals at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast in April. The shooters delivered, as expected. The wrestlers delivered, as expected. The boxers delivered, as expected. The badminton team delivered, as expected.
But one of the pleasant surprises from the Games was rich-haul of 8 medals from the table tennis contingent. The star of the contingent was Manika Batra, of course, as she won a medal in all four events that she was a part of. And not too far behind her was G Sathiyan, winning three medals. It was a performance that brought the spotlight on table tennis in India.
Shortly after Gold Coast, the Indian team had another massive tournament to take part in. Both the men’s and women’s teams were back in the Championship Division (the elite group) of the World Championships after a gap of over three decades. While the women’s team couldn’t produce great results, the men’s team led by Achanta Sharath Kamal, playing some of the best table tennis of his career, and Sathiyan pulled off some memorable wins (including a massive upset of world No 4 France) to finish 13th - the best finish in 33 years.
World number 46, Sathiyan, only the second Indian to break into the top 50 of the world, was involved in some heartbreaking defeats and a few red-letter moments in the tournament. He defeated Emmanuel Lebesson, the world No 28, in a crunch decider. He defeated the top players of Croatia and Singapore, both ranked higher than him. It was, overall, a tournament where the 25-year-old came of age as the men’s team carried the momentum forward in some style from the Commonwealth Games.
The Field caught up with Sathiyan on his return to India from the World Team Championships. Excerpts from an interaction:
The experience of featuring as the main player for the first time at the Worlds in his career.
It was a very different experience compared to the rest of my career to play directly in the championship division at the Worlds. There was the pressure of course where every match is against quality opponents, with no space to breathe, in a long tournament. So winning those matches against some of the top names was a big deal for me. With CWG and the worlds, it was a great month.
How did you handle the pressure?
Yes, a first ITTF world tournament for me, but the fact that I have played consistently at the top level in the recent past helped me. My experience on the pro-tours, the opens, having won a few titles - so I knew how it is like to play with the top guys. That helped with not being intimidated by the top guys. It’s also worth remembering that pressure is a privilege at this level. Not everyone gets to do what we do. It’s not also about playing for anyone else, just matching your expectations. That really helped me in expressing myself at the Worlds.
What do you put down the recent upsurge for table tennis in India?
Well, if you actually see our results in the last two-three years, we have been improving consistently. Medals in pro-tour events never used to be easy for Indians before, but we have done well there. Sharath Kamal won a pro-tour title almost 8 years back but then last year I won a few medals, Harmeet won a bronze. It has been a steep rise and that really showed at the big stage during our performance at CWG. In fact, the women’s team doing well at the Games was something very nice for us.
To see Manika Batra and the rest improve their rankings, and then come to Gold Coast and put in a great performance showed that TT as a sport is on the upswing overall - it’s not just one Sharath Kamal or a few of us, there a lot of players coming up and that’s a big positive for the sport. And the hope is that we can bring a TT Olympic medal home very soon, like badminton.
How does CWG compare to your performance at the Worlds. CWG was widely televised, the medals there come with incentives. But the Worlds showing wasn’t exactly widely covered, but perhaps more significant...
Both tournaments were fantastic for the men’s team, to be honest. We were just on a roll and all of us were operating at close to a 100% - to see a team collectively operate at such a high level is pretty rare in my experience. CWG is very close to the heart though because we know for us, right now, it is the biggest stage where we know we are capable of winning many medals. The feeling of hearing the national anthem - you won’t get that even on the tougher tournaments you play on tour. World Championship is a bigger tournament of course, and especially, this year, where we played in the first division (for the first time in 33 years). And I’d actually say the impact of our CWG was seen in the coverage of the Worlds. I think more people followed our results this time around.
Individually, as a player, how were the two tournaments different for you?
The Worlds was purely top, top level. At CWG, there was a handful of world class players. The matches I played in Halmstad, I think almost every single one of them was top 50. The ties went on four hours in some cases and we sat on the bench and cheered even when we were not playing. It was a surreal team experience. The World Championships made me a better player, I feel I have improved over the duration of the tournament. The confidence is high. What the CWG gave was happiness, you know, that we succeeded after a couple of years of hardwork. The recognition was great, the rewards and all that. But the Worlds made me a better player.
You touched on the camaraderie in the team, how it was cheer each other on. So how important is it to have a veteran like Sharath Kamal in the team, and still playing at a high level?
It’s fantastic. Sharath anna playing this well is no surprise to us. He has been delivering for India for more than a decade. Sharath anna’s presence takes out the pressure from us, really. Doesn’t matter if he’s winning or losing, just the mere presence of him makes us feel like we have to give our best. He is there to help us with the pressure, as a moral support. And more importantly, he’s still open to suggestions from the younger guys like us. He doesn’t try to dominate the decision-making. I can discuss about the game with him without a second thought.
Is the gap in quality reducing in India? For the longest time we had only Sharath and Amalraj - are we now seeing a talented young crop emerge?
See, the gap will be there because when one set of players are doing well, the exposure for the remaining group is never the same. What we need though is have a higher number of players to choose from. When more people take up the sport, the easier it is to find talent - it’s very simple. And we can already see that after CWG - there are more coaching centers, more kids signing up. Before, there was only one Sharath. Now there is me, Harmeet, Sanil, Manika. In the years to follow there will hopefully be many more.
What has changed for you in the last couple of years?
I had a big transformation when I moved to my current personal coach Raman sir in 2014. The transformation from junior to senior, successfully, happened because of him. I have improved a great deal on my serve and the attacking options I have. The mindset change was followed by more foreign exposure from 2013-14, it started coming together bit-by-bit, not overnight. People always said I was talented, but every talented athlete, needs the time to grow. I really focussed on improving my skill-set when I made the jump. It was a process-oriented approach that has brought me here.
The results are there to see now...
Kandippa. See, also my mental makeup changed completely with the passing away of my dad in 2015. I became, mentally, a very strong player. It opened up my game, and I started taking calculated risks. My confidence sky-rocketed with a win in Belgium Open (doubles bronze with Sharath Kamal). I started believing I have the potential. I used to laugh when my coach said I could be in top 50, when I was 400 in the world. And now here I am already.
The role of coach Massimo Constantini since he took over in 2016...
Coach Max came in at the right time, I would say. As individual players, we were all improving rapidly with our personal coaches and he came in and gave us the extra edge. Importantly, he gave us the environment as a team to improve - the government side of things were handled, the budgets went up, there was a proper plan in place, there were camps. It was a bit haphazard before, but he came in and gave us the direction. That team spirit built up and you could see that during CWG.
What next for Sathiyan? What are the areas you want to improve on? As good as the World Championship was, there were a couple of instances where India lost matches they could have won...
Just being at the Worlds was a learning experience. It told me where I stand, and what I need to do to improve. There was a match against Simon Gauzy (France, world No 10) where I was playing well, I had a match point in the 4th set. He just played some extraordinary TT at that point. That’s the kind of quality and mental strength I need in my game. And my biggest focus this year is going to be physical fitness to stay close to the European and Chinese players in the longer tournaments. Technically, there are a couple of issues I need to improve - my return game for example. But the most important is to last physically in tough matches and then be able to close them out.
If I continue on this path, I want to break into the top 20 first, then bring my ranking down to the single digit and then win an Olympic medal in 2020 is definitely possible. At this level, it’s first about the belief you have in your own abilities, which I do, and then the process begins to achieve that.