Ahead of Tokyo, more lockdown blues for athletes

  • With less than 80 days to go for the Olympics, India's table tennis contingent is back to figuring out how to train under severe restrictions.
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran of India (File Photo)(Getty Images)
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran of India (File Photo)(Getty Images)
Updated on May 11, 2021 09:52 AM IST
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ByRutvick Mehta

When G Sathiyan, India’s Olympic-bound paddler, completed the work on his table tennis hall--with a 20-foot high ceiling, and built on the top floor of his house in Chennai earlier this year--he thought it could come in handy in the longer run or during the odd occasion when he gets the urge to work on his serve in the late hours. Little did he know then that the “Sathiyan TT Hall” would turn into his full-time training centre with less than three months for the Tokyo Games.

“I never thought the hall will come to use this early, and in this way. I even toyed with the idea of delaying the work on it due to the pandemic,” Sathiyan said. Luckily for him, he didn’t.

With Tamil Nadu going into a complete two-week lockdown from Monday in an effort to break the surge of Covid-19 cases, the world No. 38 Sathiyan, along with Anirban Ghosh, who specifically shifted to Chennai last month to be his sparring partner till July, were forced to halt their training at the Raman TT High Performance Centre.

Sathiyan decided to move Ghosh, who was staying at the residential set-up of the academy, to his house. Sathiyan will now be forced to continue his preparations for his maiden Olympic appearance in that single-table, one-room hall without the presence of his coach. Gym sessions with his physical trainer are off-limits as well.

“This has come at a very critical period. We’ll lose out on a crucial two weeks,” Sathiyan said on Monday. “When it was all stepping up and I was getting really intense with the training, the flow has been interrupted. I had got into the groove and felt like I was peaking at the right time in my Tokyo preparations.

“There will definitely be a lag. But I hope to at least maintain, though not improve, my level of training at home. You have to find new ways, new techniques to keep going.”

Sathiyan now knows a thing or two about being resourceful all by himself. Before his maiden World Cup in Chengdu in 2019 in which he entered the Round of 16, Sathiyan had recruited the services of a sparring partner from China and got an advanced robot from Germany weeks before the tournament. That Butterfly Amicus Prime robot has been put to good use since, with Sathiyan training with it during the lockdown months last year.

Like before the World Cup, the 28-year-old had also planned to host a foreign sparring partner to fine-tune his game ahead of the Tokyo Games, but with the intense second wave of the pandemic gripping the country, it was impossible to convince overseas players to visit India. Sathiyan turned to Ghosh, 22, to be his sparring partner, with whom he had trained ahead of the national championships and the Olympic qualifiers in Doha earlier this year, both of which Sathiyan won; the latter to book his Tokyo spot.

With the plan approved by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), the two players and Sathiyan’s personal coach, S Raman, began training at the Raman Centre from mid-April after getting permission to use the centre during the partial lockdown restrictions. That was until Monday, before the state government barred the movement of people except for essential and emergency use for 14 days.

Sathiyan will now have to get back to online sessions with Raman.

“It’s just not the same environment. Of course, we’ll fix the camera and have online sessions, but a coach being there physically makes a big difference. We have been working on a lot of specific technical issues and footwork, like specific multi-ball techniques. We used to change partners as well, because Raman sir would also hit a little bit. Now it’s just two of us,” Sathiyan said.

Raman will send across a flow chart for Sathiyan to continue working on those specific technical aspects, which Sathiyan plans to paste on the wall of his hall. “I will have to assess a few things myself now. You can’t be a coach and a player. But I’ll have to multi-task,” he said.

The fitness work will take a bigger hit. Sathiyan might be lucky enough to have converted a full-fledged TT hall at home, but he has limited fitness equipment at his disposal. He has requested TOPS to send across some more equipment for weight training but till that arrives, his, and Ramji Srinivasan’s, hands are tied. “There will be a complete change in fitness schedule. Ramji (his trainer) is reworking on it on the basis of whatever I have at home,” Sathiyan said.

“More than anything else, mentally when you have a coach and trainer around you, you can push yourself, do that extra bit when you’re tired. That environment of training cannot be replicated at home,” he added.

"Scared to go out"

Sathiyan’s senior pro and city-mate, the veteran Sharath Kamal who is gearing up for his fourth Olympics, is also on the same boat. Just a fortnight ago, Sharath and Manika Batra, who have qualified in mixed doubles apart from singles, had a five-day training stint at the city's Nehru Stadium. Now, the 38-year-old has nowhere to go. “Firstly, when you hear so many cases of people around you getting infected with Covid-19, you tend to get scared to go out. But at the same time, professionally, it’s going to impact whatever work we’ve been doing so far to be in the best shape ahead of the Olympics,” Sharath said.

Sharath too has a table at home, but unlike Sathiyan, he is without a sparring partner. “Even then, it is a makeshift option, at best,” he said.

Both of them have written to the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu seeking special permission to use their respective centres to train. SAI, too, has swung into action and has requested for the same, according to the two. But the final nod has to come from the state government. “Even if we can just practice, and not use the gym for fitness work, it is fine,” Sharath said.

Till then, Sathiyan is preparing himself to train at “60-70 per cent” of his usual training level stuck at home.

Like Sathiyan, Sharath has had to be resourceful too. In December last year, with national camps thrown into disarray because of the pandemic, Sharath took it upon himself to organise a 10-day long camp in Chennai ahead of the Tokyo qualifiers. He arranged for coaches, venues, put in place Covid-19 SOPs, arranged for accommodation and got the necessary permissions. The camp ran successfully.

April's training stint with his doubles partner Batra was also the result of desperate planning. Initially, Sharath was to fly from Chennai to Pune—where Batra trains—for the practice sessions. But with Pune going into partial lockdown at the start of the month which turned into a stricter lockdown in Maharashtra in mid-April, that plan had to be shelved. The two then took the impromptu decision to shift base to Chennai instead. “After Pune went into lockdown, we spoke and Manika said I’ll come to Chennai. We decided about it just three days before she flew down because we wanted to keep track of the situation,” Sharath said.

Batra is now back in Pune and India's lone mixed doubles pair for Tokyo are unsure when they will be able to train together again.

“Whatever little we can do in this scenario will help, and we must use it. It was nice to be able to at least train together for a few days given the current situation,” Sharath said.

Sathiyan said on Monday: “I only hope the lockdown doesn’t extend further, otherwise it is going to be extremely difficult mentally and physically.”

India has a fourth TT player who has qualified for Tokyo, Sutirtha Mukherjee, who is continuing her training in Kolkata.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2021