Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, India’s highest-ranked table tennis player, has made it a habit of turning heads in the international arena. If 2018 witnessed him make major breakthroughs at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Team Championships, 2019 has been about consolidating his place in the top 30 in the world and upsetting some of the biggest names in the sport. And it was fitting, perhaps, that he made waves in the season-ending World Cup that finished in China on Sunday.
“Arguably, he performed the greatest opening day sensation in the now 40 years history of the prestigious tournament,” was how the International Table Tennis Federation described Sathiyan’s opening day exploits in Chengdu.
That was massive praise for the Indian star who was making his debut at the ITTF World Cup, having finished sixth in the continental qualification event. And now, he had beaten two higher-ranked players in the group stages of the tournament, and both were first-time wins over his respective opponents. Frenchman Simon Gauzy and Denmark’s Jonathan Groth are ranked 22 and 24 in the world currently, compared to Sathiyan’s 30.
Only the best of the best play the World Cup at the end of a season and Sathiyan rubbed shoulders with the elite in some style. Speaking to Scroll.in a day after his hard-fought defeat to former world No 1 and one of the greats of the game, Timo Boll, Sathiyan said this tournament sent out a message to his peers: that he is here to stay.
Excerpts from the interview:
How have the last couple of days been? The experience of turning so many heads in Chengdu...
It was amazing. My first World Cup, playing in a big stage. I had nothing to lose, I just went out with different strategies: I wanted to be a bit more aggressive than usual. Be a bit more bold, [have] better body language. I changed my rubber on the backhand side too. The plans coach Raman and I made in Chennai in the lead-up, where we worked on specific aspects were crucial. The atmosphere was fantastic. I really loved the experience and beating two players I have never beaten before was amazing.
What are the specific things you had worked on and how was your mindset going into the first World Cup?
I worked hard on my receives. I planned to go harder and be more aggressive, on the backhand side. Things like the banana flick. Also, I wanted to go a little harder in rallies. I used to play with the idea of staying in rallies but tried this time to step back and add more pace to my hitting. The pace combined with power is what the Chinese paddlers do at the highest level, so to go into that kind of mode I had to start on the process. I have exhibited those things to some extent already and I could feel the difference. Gauzy was also found it difficult to pick.
The ITTF website called you the headliner of the first day. You were described as one of the most sensational debutants in the tournament’s history. Two big names of the sport upset in one day. What was the mood like around you after that?
Well, there are few players around at this event and two of them were probably upset with my performances: the ones I beat. (laughs). Raman sir was in happy tears, congratulated me. For me, beating Gauzy was very special because I have lost close matches to him. And he is not the type of player I am comfortable playing. Both he and Groth are rally-players and difficult for me. But we were prepared and executing the plans was great. But the ITTF folks were more excited than me, coming up to me with a lot of interviews. And the Chinese crowd too was just amazing. I celebrated beating Gauzy out of pure joy and excitement, by falling on the court and the crowd loved it. Had plenty of people come up and ask for photographs. I felt I have done something amazing and sent a strong message to everyone: that I am not a one-off but I am there in the top 30 for a while, I am beating top players regularly. It sends a strong message that I belong to this league.
Your 2018 was pathbreaking. Performances at CWG, Asian Games and titles on the circuit. But did you have a different strategy for 2019? More focussed on playing just the bigger tournaments (Platinum level events) at the cost of, perhaps, a few ranking points?
The Games years and the years in between are always different. The one year in between (2018-2020, 2020-2022) you have to plan accordingly. For 2018, at CWG, I just had to give my best and that was enough but at the Asian Games, I had to go above and beyond. And now, in 2020, the plans will again be different. So this year, we wanted to play the best tournaments and get used to it. I shouldn’t get intimidated when I face players like Timo Boll at a big event. I wanted to play these stars more often. Beating Harimoto (currently world No 5 and finallist at the World Cup), Gauzy and Groth... it’s been a great year in that sense. It was important to not worry about ranking points and play with the best players. And to make the final climb in the rankings, I had to make a call to play in the Platinum level events. I played 11-12 Pro Tour events.
You, personally, had a great time at the Asian Championships (unbeaten in the team event, first Indian to reach a quarterfinal in 43 years in the individual event). And now beating two higher-ranked players and going toe-to-toe with Boll. Which tournament would you rate as better for you?
That’s a tough question. (laughs). Playing for India at Asian championships was special. And to beat Harimoto is at the top of the list in terms of individual wins. But as a tournament, I am really happy with the World Cup. Beating big players at a debut World Cup, it was a Games-type atmosphere. I was able to handle the pressure and taking on experienced guys.
Did you speak to Timo Boll after the match? He seemed quite impressed with your game at the end of the round-of-16 match. How was the experience of playing the former world No 1 for the first time in your career?
He said great going. He is the nicest person on the circuit. I posted a photo on Twitter... 3-4 years back, I was not even in the top 100. I just had a practise session. He did not know who I was then but put a post saying that I am a bright talent and I will break into the top 100 soon. And now I got a chance to play him at the World Cup. I was so pleased that I made him work for every point. I did not make it easy for him. I made sure I am not taken lightly. That’s a takeaway from this tournament for me.
Confident you are on the right track, looking ahead to 2020?
I mean, do you have any doubt about that? (laughs) I am feeling great, feeling perfectly on track. Raman sir has come up with a road-map and given that no Indian player has quite come this far in our sport before, there is no blueprint to follow for reaching the top. We are trying a lot of things that suit my game. I can’t just start playing like the Chinese... I have to adapt to what style fits me. Definitely on the right track, as every two-three months, I have picked up a big win. Consistency is very important and for me, staying at the same level is as good as going down. I have to keep climbing the ladder, not just in terms of rankings but game-wise. Beating a big player sends a message and the feeling I get after such wins is special.