The meteoric rise of Sathiyan

G Sathiyan became the first Indian table tennis player to break into the top-25 in world rankings. REUTERS

G Sathiyan is a man in a hurry. He was busy finishing his engineering in Information Technology when some of his junior mates were graduating to the senior ranks. As the course books became heavier, he flirted with the idea of quitting table tennis. It didn’t last long, though. Things took a turn in 2012, and Sathiyan was back on the table, motoring his way to the top.

All this while, his coach and former international S Raman has been his anchor. He staunchly stood by Sathiyan as he fought to come to terms with his father’s demise in 2015. Under his strict guidance, Sathiyan revived himself, created history in his maiden Commonwealth Games and Asian Games last year, before becoming the first Indian to break into the top 25 singles rankings. Despite that the 26-year-old is pleasingly grounded. At heart, he remains a middle-class South Indian boy who believes in taking calculative risks.

“Today there is support for other sports. But it was not the same eight years ago. I am glad I did the engineering. It made me tough and prepared me to make tough decisions,” Sathiyan told DH on the sidelines of Ultimate Table Tennis where he is captaining Dabang Delhi.

“But there was a time in 2011 when I was thinking about not playing. I had finished playing in juniors and engineering was getting tougher. But as they say good things happen at the same time. So Go Sports Foundation came along, I got a job in ONGC, and Raman sir convinced me to play.”

The rise of Sathiyan since 2012 has been meteoric. Within two years, he had cracked the top-200 and clinched a place in the senior team. He broke in top-50 in January 2018.

2018 proved to be a watershed year for Indian table tennis. The Chennai paddler won three medals in Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, before scripting history by winning team bronze medal at the Asian Games. But before that, he had to work hard to step out of his comfort zone. “I worked on some aspects of my game before the Commonwealth Games. I focused on improving my attacking skills on the backhand. My forehand was attacking but my backhand was considered to be controlled. I also changed my rubber -- the one I was using earlier was more of a defensive, all-round kind. So I changed to Tenergy 05 rubber on the backhand as well which allowed me to play aggressive on both sides.”

Sathiyan is grateful to be a part of a strong domestic competition in men’s singles. It was also one of the reasons which motivated him to return to table tennis. “I will like to give it to Harmeet (Desai) and (Soumyajit) Ghosh. Because when I was doing my engineering, they were playing with the senior team and I also wanted to do it. But again that should not be sole motive but a small push. It is important to keep trying to compete and push each other to go where no Indians had been. We have a lot of fun, we share a lot of strategies, professional approach on sponsors despite....

“Sharath (Kamal) has been a fantastic senior. I remember I beat him when I was coming up and I wanted to practice in German clubs. Sharath told his German club that I just beat him, which was magnanimous of him. So they gave me a chance to practice. Today I am playing in the same league as Sharath.”

Despite the expectations from Asian Games bronze medallist Sharath and Manika Batra to qualify for the mixed doubles in Olympics, Sathiyan along with young Archana Kamath is hoping to pose a challenge. The two won gold in the recently concluded Commonwealth Championships in Cuttack.

“Olympics is a long shot but we have been silently coming in (laughs). Sharath and Manika have also been doing well so we thought of pushing them a little bit! But look it’s not about crossing paths with them. Only one pair qualifies from each country. They are 19th and we are 31 (as per the July rankings), but it struck me when I saw Archana playing so well. She has already started showings signs of beating top players, and she is more attacking than any of the Indian girls. She is good in counter-attacking too,” said Sathiyan.

“We will be playing a lot of pro-tours staring with Bulgaria and Czech. So why not give it a shot.”

So how realistic does an Olympic medal looks? “How realistically did you see an Asian Games medals?,” he shot back and continues, “I think that is sports. We are very positive after beating Japan in Asian Games. China sees us as a potential threat. Of course singles medal is hard for now but in team events and mixed doubles, we have a good chance.”

 

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