In what is becoming a good little trend for Indian table tennis, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran once again swapped places with his mentor Achanta Sharath Kamal as the country’s highest ranked paddler.

The 25-year-old from Chennai reached his career-best ranking of 44 in the latest update issued by the International Table Tennis Federation, moving up two spots and, in the process, taking over the mantle from Sharath Kamal, who has been enjoying a late surge in his career.

It’s been a great few months for Indian table tennis and Sathiyan in particular. At this point last year, he was ranked 102 in the world, but then climbed steadily into the top 50 and has held his position there since the beginning of 2018. For Sathiyan, to be there consistently is a matter of great pride, which is evident in his tone during a conversation with The Field.

“Well, the target was to try and reach top 20 by the end of the year, but it’s not very easy to hold on to a place in the top 50 consistently,” he said. “It’s easier to improve rankings by 10 or 20 places when you are in the 100s, but the improvement is much slower when you get closer to the top.”

He added, “Ultimately, I am not focussed too much on the numbers. I am just looking forward to more such memorable tournaments and focussing on the process instead.”

On a break currently in Sri Lanka after a hectic period that saw him win three medals at Commonwealth Games and help India to their best finish in over three decades at the World Team Championships, Sathiyan is recharging his batteries for another busy phase.

That starts with the second season of Ultimate Table Tennis. Sathiyan, who will turn up for Dabang Smashers TTC alongside Manika Batra, and two top-30 players in Masaki Yoshida and Sakura Mori, sees UTT as an opportunity to fine-tune his skill-set without worrying about his rankings.

Trying out more skills

“UTT will be a great platform to try out more skills, especially developing serve options, work on taking calculated risks, and play more aggressively,” he said. “My upcoming stint in the German Bundesliga will also help. These two tournaments won’t affect or help improve my rankings, so it’s the perfect platform to work on my game against some top talent.”

Sathiyan also credits the UTT for his upsurge in form on the world tour.

“During the UTT, I am going to work on a new fitness schedule. And [my coach] Raman sir has identified areas for me to work on my game. [National] coach Max [Costantini] has been guiding me as well. UTT last year was a turning point. After the tournament my performances significantly soared on the world tour.”

The engineer-turned-paddler is well aware that with a surge in rankings also comes the added pressure of living up to expectations surrounding him now.

“From here on, the small margins will matter,” he said. “I have to keep tweaking my game a little to gain that extra inch that will help me remain consistent against the top players. Every detail matters. We are doing a lot more of video analysis these days.”

He added, “That’s been my focus with coach Raman sir. We are chalking out plans for the remainder of the year, and with the Asian Games coming up, it’s going to be a hectic second half as well.”

And part of that hectic second half is going to be the Asian Games in Jakarta. While Commonwealth Games has traditionally been a good hunting ground for India’s paddlers, the continental championship is a whole different ball-game, the field brimming with heavyweights in the sport. Sathiyan, however, is optimistic.

“I’d say we have a good chance of a medal at Asian Games if we could get a bit lucky with the draw. We are not quite there to compete with China yet, but at our best we are capable of challenging Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei, or Singapore,” he said.

“And if we get to meet any of them in quarter-finals, we do have the chance to break the Asian Games jinx. With Sharath anna is this form, leading the team, and with momentum on our side this year, this is a great chance for us to do well. The year so far has been one of pleasant surprises, and if we can push ourselves in Indonesia, maybe there can be one more surprise.”