If 2018 was about winning hearts and medals at the quadrennial events, Indian table tennis in 2019 witnessed the rise of Sathiyan Gnanasekaran as the most consistent player from the country. The Chennai-born athlete came of age to take over the leadership mantle in Indian table tennis from veteran Achanta Sharath Kamal in a year which saw paddlers produce memorable performances despite the lack of a full-time coach.

For a decade and a half, Sharath was India’s lone warrior on the big stage but now he too must be relieved that he has got a fast-improving Sathiyan for company.

“It’s time (we had someone else taking over the leadership responsibility). Sathiyan is improving rapidly in the international arena and I am really happy for him,” the 37-year-old Sharath, arguably the finest table tennis player India has produced, was quoted saying by PTI.

With India doing exceedingly well at the Commonwealth and Asian Games, 2019 was mainly about Sathiyan making his mark at the highest level where he defeated quite a few top-20 players, including young Japanese teenage sensation Harimoto Tomokazu.

The 26-year-old also became the first Indian to break into the top-25 of the ITTF world rankings when he rose to No 24 in July. Another feather in his cap was finishing sixth in his first ever Asian Cup which helped him qualify for the World Cup where he made the main draw after topping his group by beating two higher-ranked players in one day.

Taking a conscious decision to play more high level tournaments to improve his game, rather than focus on improving his rankings, Sathiyan consolidated his spot in the top-30 of the world.

Sathiyan's ranking graph over the last 3 years (ITTF)

“It has been a satisfying year. I beat quite a few higher-ranked players and the target for next year is to register more wins against the top-10 players. We are also doing well as a team and that gives us confidence going into the Olympic qualifiers,” Sathiyan told PTI.

Interview: ITTF World Cup performance sends a message that I belong to the top league, says Sathiyan

Indian paddlers have now become a force to reckon with and they were without a full-time coach in the journey this year. The individual brilliance aside, they also make for a potent men’s team. Sharath Kamal along with National players Anthony Amalraj, Manav Thakar and Harmeet Desai got together in Chennai recently where legend of the game Kamalesh Mehta was present to help them out in preparation for the World Team Qualification scheduled to happen in Gondomar, Portugal, from January 22 to 26.

Sathiyan, Manika Batra, Reeth Rishaya and some local paddlers were reportedly part of the camp that came to an end on December 30. Metha said: “I am excited to see the team practicing hard for the qualifier and can see the fire in each of them to prove in the selection. Each complementing, training, suggesting. It is so healthy and positive.”

After winning a historic bronze at the Asian Games last year, the squad comprising Sharath (WR 34), Sathiyan (30) and reigning Commonwealth champion Harmeet Desai (85) has a very good chance of achieving another first when it plays the Olympic team qualifiers.

Currently ranked 8th, all India needs to do is to reach the quarter-finals to ensure a first ever Olympic qualification as a team. So far, Indian players have only featured in individual events at the Olympics.

“The good thing is that all of us are in good shape and all we need to do is play as per our ranking. If we do that, we qualify for the Olympics as a team for the very first time,” said Sharath, who managed his workload by playing seven ITTF World Tour events this year.

Year-end men's team rankings in Table Tennis

Ranking Team Name Ranking Pts.
1 China 296
2 Japan 294
3 Germany 292
4 Korea Republic 290
5 Chinese Taipei 288
6 Sweden 286
7 Brazil 284
8 India 280
9 Austria 280
10 France 278

The much younger Sathiyan played in 11 World Tour events where he got the better of many established names in the business.

It is a credit to the squad and personal coaches, as all this has happened without a head coach for the past 16 months. Since no national camps have taken place due to the absence of a coach, players have been training on their own.

“Ahead of an important team event, we must train together. We are playing well individually but lack of a full-time coach is taking a toll on all of us including the federation which is trying its best to find a good coach,” said Sharath, who has an added responsibility of mentoring the unit.

The women’s team may not be as strong as the men’s team but expectations have been high from Batra ever since she bagged four medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The world No 61 could not build up on that exceptional showing in 2019 and slipped in the rankings. Off the court, the 24-year-old from Delhi had a lot going on as she split with her childhood coach Sandeep Gupta citing stagnancy in her game. Having moved her training base to Pune from Delhi, Batra is aiming to break into the top-50 once again.

With the paddlers taking sensational strides in the last couple of years, 2020 promises to be another exciting year for Indian table tennis.