Sathiyan Gnanasekaran might not have won his second consecutive gold medal at Ultimate Table Tennis, but there were quiet a few learnings from three weeks in New Delhi. For Sathiyan, he is thankful that he managed to break some new ground as far as silverware was concerned.
The 26-year-old won the Most Valuable Player award, the first time an Indian received the award after two seasons. But despite his second straight appearance in the final and the MVP award, Sathiyan regrets two things.
“Sports teaches you such things. The team was banking on me to help it bounce back in the final but I could not do it,” Sathiyan says. “I was frustrated the way I played. But good for me that I lost here and not in a world tour or a higher-ranked tournament.”
Sathiyan is talking about his men’s singles match against Tiago Apolonia of Chennai Lions. Sathiyan, representing Delhi Dabang in the final, came into the match with his team trailing 1-2 in a best-of-15 tie. By the end of his match, Delhi trailed 1-5.
The highest ranked Indian player was blanked 3-0 by Apolonia as Chennai went on to win the final 8-1 to clinch the title. But for Sathiyan it was all about enjoying the game before another difficult season of world tour begins.
“He broke my rhythm and I wasn’t able to play my natural game of hitting the ball early. When I was doing that he would slow the game down and then suddenly come up with a high paced shot,” he says.
Before this crushing loss, Sathiyan had lost only five sets in a total of 21. He won five matches out of seven and remained unbeaten against Indian players. He defeated veteran Sharath Kamal 2-1 in the final league game. His only loss apart from the final was against Spanish ace Alvaro Robles, who beat him 1-2.
But Sathiyan wants to put the defeats behind him and get ready for the international competitions starting with the Bulgaria Open next week before the Czech tournament in the final week of August.
“I have been constantly in touch with my coach [former National champion] Raman sir. We have decided to begin our schedule with the Bulgaria Open and then the next six month are very important,” he says.
“There are Asian Championships in September so that is crucial and we can give some fight there. The Indian players have improved a lot and that was visible in the league as well. Sharath has been top class for so many year and Manav [Thakker] was exceptional here. So we will do our best for Olympic qualification.”
India will face table tennis powerhouses such as China, Singapore and Japan in the Asian Championships and the team winning the gold medal there will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The rest of the teams will get another shot at a place in the Summer Games in January but can compete in only one qualifying tournament. Before that, there is the World Championships as well.
The past one year has been exceptional for the Chennai-based paddler. Not only did he rise from world rank 68 at the end of last year to 24 in May this year, he also beat some of players ranked higher than him including World No 16 Marcos Freitas and former Asian Champion Jeong Sanguen. Sathiyan also beat Youth Olympic gold medallist Wong Chun Ting of China.
He also became the second Indian player since Sharath to play the prestigious Bundesliga in Germany where he will be competing this year as well. Now ranked 30 as of August, Sathiyan wants to break into the top-15 in the world.
“I am definitely looking to break into top-15 by end of the year and there are many tournaments which can help me achieve that. The number is not important but I will try to improve,” he says.
A better world rank will also mean that he can qualify for the Tokyo Olympics based on his rank in the world.
“I think I should automatically qualify for Olympics. I am that close. I will also look to qualify as a team and play in Tokyo. Pro tours is different and there is restrictions on entry. In Olympics, 64 players are allowed in singles and then there are continental quotas and that is very difficult.
“I haven’t played an Olympics so don’t know how it is but I have been to Asiad and CWG and it is amazing. The whole nation is behind you,” he says.
While his goal to play at Olympics is still a year away, Sathiyan will need to improve his game to consistently win at international tournaments. The chinks in his armour were visible against Tiago, where he made Sathiyan concede points on serve; he found the Portuguese’s serves too hot to handle.
“The game teaches you a lot. Sometimes it is harder to sit in the team dugout and cheer your teammate than even playing. But I’ll be cautious when I next play Tiago anywhere. I know his game now. I am here to improve.”