It is midnight in Jakarta on Monday but the excitement in the voice of Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, India’s star paddler, is evident. It’s what the adrenaline-rush of a historic win does to you. Only an hour earlier, Sathiyan and his teammates created history by ensuring India will finish on the podium of a table tennis event at the Asian Games for the first time ever.
Let that sink in: India winning a table tennis medal at the Asian Games.
It was Sathiyan who eventually clinched the tie for India, with a match to spare, no less. He defeated Kenta Matsudaira 12-10, 6-11, 11-7, 11-4 and sank to the floor in delight.
“No words to describe this feeling,” Sathiyan told Scroll.in. “I just can’t believe we’ve won an Asian Games medal. This is undoubtedly the biggest achievement of my career. More than any title on tour, more than a Commonwealth Games medal, this is it. Feel like I am getting closer to an Olympic medal, it’s just a fantastic day.”
For those following the match back home in India, it was a nerve-wracking affair. The match was not being played on the two tables which were being produced for television on the world feed. It was a question of following periodic updates from those present at the venue, or hitting the refresh button on the official website till it broke.
For Sathiyan too, you could imagine, it wasn’t much different. In the first match, he defeated Jin Ueda (world No 28) 11-9, 11-9, 11-7 and set the tone for the tie. In the second match, he saw his friend, mentor and idol Achanta Sharath Kamal – who opted to play the tougher opponent first, in a tactical masterstroke – defeat Kenta Matsudaira (world No 19) 11-8, 12-10, 11-8.
And now, suddenly, the tie was winnable in three games because Harmeet Desai had already defeated Masaki Yoshida in UTT earlier this year. Harmeet did in fact take a 2-1 lead in the game. And that’s when Sathiyan, who till then was fully involved in his teammates’ games, decided to step back.
“We were actually expecting to win 3-0 when Harmeet was leading 2-1 and playing really well,” Sathiyan said. “At that point I was getting too involved in the tie and decided to just come out of the match that Harmeet was playing. I thought I shouldn’t lose focus on my match (if he had to play the next one) and I was warming up separately, just keeping an eye on the score but preparing myself mentally for the next game.”
And it paid off. Facing Matsudaira for the first time in his career, Sathiyan didn’t let the occasion get to him and sealed the deal for India.
“I just wanted to keep my nerves under control. Repeatedly told myself to stay calm. This year, all big events (CWG, World Team Championships, Asian Games) have been been my debut events and the atmosphere here is just so different to anywhere else. So it was about not letting it affect me, and believing in my skills,” he said.
Making the most of the draw
It’s worth noting that Japan’s top three ranked players were missing from this squad, with an eye on developing their bench strength for Tokyo 2020. Sathiyan said his team was fully aware of that and were hoping to draw Japan in the quarter-final, especially after a tight 2-3 defeat against Chinese Taipei in the group stage meant their hopes of topping the group were gone.
“Definitely, getting this draw helped us. Of course, we wanted to face Japan,” says the 25-year-old. “But a good draw is not equal to a medal. Not just facing Japan in the quarters, but also getting Chinese Taipei in the group was good for us. In a way, losing the match so closely against Taipei in the group removed that extra pressure. It told us we were good enough to beat a top team but at the same time, we knew we shouldn’t think too much about making the most of the opportunity in front of us. That was unnecessary pressure. End of the day, even if it was Japan, they were still better ranked than us. It’s not like they sent an underdog team.”
If it was a good draw that played a role in India’s run to the semi-finals, there is no substitute for meticulous preparation.
“I have worked a lot in the Asian circuit this year,” Sathiyan said. “Be it Pro Tour events, or our national camp in China – the idea is that, to do well in Olympics, or break into the top 20, you need to play more and more at the Asian level. To beat China is still a tough ask, anga aproma polaam (We’ll get there eventually),” he added, with a smile.
As for playing alongside Sharath Kamal, a man who has carried the sport for so long in India, Sathiyan is chuffed.
“After so many years, to deliver consistently for the nation is a great achievement and having him in the team is a great boost for guys like Harmeet and I. He takes a lot of pressure off the team. He has always been delivering for India, and now he has a good team to back up his efforts. Really happy and we won it as a team.”
And indeed, as a team, the trio delivered what will go down in the history books as one of the most famous Asian Games medals for India.