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Tuesday, Dec 10, 2019

How Sathiyan turned the table

The world No 30 turned the tables quite spectacularly to shock the 22nd-ranked Gauzy 4-3 in the first Group D match of his maiden appearance at the ITTF World Cup in Chengdu on Friday.

other-sports Updated: Dec 02, 2019 23:13 IST
Rutvick Mehta
Rutvick Mehta
Mumbai
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran celebrates victory after beating Tomokazu Harimoto of Japan during day two of the ITTF-Asian Table Tennis Championships.
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran celebrates victory after beating Tomokazu Harimoto of Japan during day two of the ITTF-Asian Table Tennis Championships.(Getty Images)
         

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran had that sinking feeling again. Up 10-6 against Simon Gauzy—the Frenchman against whom he had lost all his three past encounters—India’s highest-ranked paddler blew away the lead to lose the first game 11-13. And then the second 9-11. “I thought, ‘C’mon, it’s the same story again. You’re leading and you’re almost there but you’re not able to win it’,” Sathiyan said.

Except, this time, the story was different.

The world No 30 turned the tables quite spectacularly to shock the 22nd-ranked Gauzy 4-3 in the first Group D match of his maiden appearance at the ITTF World Cup in Chengdu on Friday. The Indian backed it up by notching up another triumph against a higher-ranked player who he had never beaten—the world No 24 Jonathan Groth of Denmark 4-2—to top the group and earn his spot in the main draw comprising the best 16 players.

Even though he went down to former world No 1 Timo Boll of Germany in the Round of 16, the 26-year-old described his showing in his first ever World Cup outing as a “dream debut”. Yet, it was not an overnight phenomenon. Together with coach S Raman, Sathiyan carefully plotted the World Cup by hiring the services of a sparring partner from China and flying down an advanced robot from Germany to Chennai just weeks before the tournament.

The sparring partner was Shen Yaohuan, a 22-year-old Chinese paddler who could not make it to the national team but now works with some of the top players in the world, including world No 10 Lin Yun-ju. Sathiyan and Raman got him to come to Chennai for a short span of eight days, with the objective of working on game plans to beat players that Sathiyan would mostly taste defeat against. “We took out eight players who would be our potential opponents in the World Cup after studying the draw and rankings,” Sathiyan said.

“The main reason that we called Yaohuan was that there are some skills that you can develop only if the opponent is strong enough. And if I had to beat the top guys, I needed that increase in level,” he added. Sathiyan worked on his serves and receives with Yaohuan—“because the Chinese are good at that”—but was also preparing for the challenges to come. For example, in the anticipation of facing the southpaw Groth, Sathiyan would ask the right-handed Yaohuan to cross over and serve deep from the other side of the table.

Those eight days with the Chinese proved to be invaluable, and ensured Sathiyan went into the World Cup without the fear of facing, and losing, to the higher-ranked players. “I felt good after those eight days, getting hit left and right by a hard-hitting player like Shen. It reduced my fear and anxiety. I felt really comfortable going into the tournament. I was mentally, physically and technically strong,” Sathiyan said.

If having a sparring partner wasn’t enough, Sathiyan also roped one of the most advanced robots from Germany late in October, the Butterfly Amicus Prime Robot. Unlike a normal robot that merely shoots across balls at the other end at a monotonous speed and length, one can add variations to this machine, like short balls to the backhand or deep balls to the forehand. “It is almost programmed to play like a human in certain aspects,” Sathiyan, who is also an engineer, said. “It can play like a human for about three-four balls. And, the spin and speed that it can generate, a human can very rarely match. When you get used to that kind of pace and quality that is coming in, it becomes really helpful when you play a match,” he added.

The World Cup performance has not only proven to Sathiyan that he has what it takes to be a part of the cream of world table tennis, but also the top-20 players who the Indian is facing more regularly now. “To beat players that I had never beaten in a big tournament like the World Cup sends a very strong message to the top players of table tennis. I hope I can carry this form, confidence, attitude and body language till the Olympics,” Sathiyan said.

Sathiyan has made steady progress this season, becoming the first Indian to break into the top-25 of the world rankings in April earlier this year and the second from the country to enter the quarter-finals of the Asian Table Tennis Championships in September. Sathiyan has set his sights on an early booking to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with the qualifiers slated for January next year. “I’m treading into the unknown, through a path no Indian has gone through before,” Sathiyan said. “The target now is to get into top 15-20 in the world rankings before the Olympics, and qualify as early as possible for Tokyo so that we can plan better.”