The Table Tennis National final has had no more than heartbreak for Gnanasekaran Sathiyan. He’s been there three times, but never managed to win the summit clash. On Tuesday, he reached his fourth. And in Achanta Sharath Kamal, the India No 1, he’d face his toughest compatriot.
After six gruelling games, Sathiyan finally had Match Point. Championship Point. And when he secured his first ever title in the 82nd edition of the event, he gestured towards his paddle, and then his jersey, and then shook hands with his opponent – a man who has won the event nine times. On the sidelines of the Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex, Sathiyan’s coach S Raman – a four-time national champion himself – had begun to tear up, while the 28-year-old took his time to soak in the achievement after his 4-2 (11-6, 11-7, 10-12, 7-11, 11-8, 11-8) win in the men’s singles event.
“I have been trying to win the national title for a long time,” Sathiyan says to The Indian Express.
“I’ve reached three finals and three semi-finals, and I believe that this win is personally very close to my heart. The achievements of the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games are much bigger than this, but this was a childhood dream and will remain a memory to cherish always.”
The Chennai-lad had taken a 2-0 lead over the 38-year-old, who is ranked 32 in the world, only for the veteran to level up the proceedings.
“I got a little carried away after two games and after the fourth game, I told myself not to think about the final,” Sathiyan explains. “Sharath was playing a fine short play, but my forehand attack and flicks worked well for me and I am glad that I could get this monkey off my back.”
A strong forehand was not unseen in Sathiyan’s repertoire. But he showed that the shot has only gotten bigger since he worked on it during the lockdown. And with a new modification to his paddle, it’s become an even more potent weapon.
It perhaps explains why he tapped it after he won the title.
New rubber, bigger forehand and tricky serves
The lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic forced Sathiyan to take time away from competitive table tennis, but it gave him a chance to build up his physique. He worked on improving his fitness with his physio Ramji Srinivasan, while Raman started to chalk-out a new strategy to improve his game.
“For a long time I knew that my forehand was not up to the mark and I worked on bringing more brush and spin to it,” Sathiyan says.
“So I changed the rubber I use to Dignics 09C. It’s a bit stickier, so it has the friction to generate more spin. It’s also a hard rubber, so it offers more pace.”
To get more spin though means a lot of wristwork.
“I had to generate more effort from my wrists and the extra physical work in the gym helped me adjust to the requirements of the new bat,” he adds.
Raman however had taken it upon himself to make sure his ward brought in greater variations in the serve. Over the past few years, the pair would not get much time to spend in training because of the busy tour schedule. It’s been the same since play resumed and Sathiyan travelled to the Polish and Japanese leagues to ply his trade.
In the short break that followed, Raman had prepared a special program for training.
“This time my first focus was to change his service profile. We had detailed discussions on how he is going to serve and return serve. Then we went through different service motions,” says the 51-year-old coach.
“Whether it was spin, rotation or angle, we studied each aspect and developed some different styles for him. The biggest thing was getting him to serve like a left-hander and we worked on improving the banana (curving) return. The way he sets his forehand attack was the key and the new rubber offers him better control and impact to do that, along with playing deceiving shots too,” says Raman.
Nationals done, Olympic qualifiers next
Over the past few years, Sathiyan has made rapid strides up the ranking ladder. The current World No 37 has been as high as 24 – the best for an Indian – and has even reached a World Cup quarterfinal, back in 2019.
All of it, however, was to set himself up for a run at the Olympics in Tokyo. And he’s continued to explore different avenues to help him prepare as much as possible for the quadrennial even in July.
Trips to Poland, where he played for Sokolow SA Jaroslaw, helped him get back into the groove. But a stint in Japan, where he played for the Okayama Rivets meant that he could rub shoulders with the likes of World No 4 Tomokazu Harimoto and former No 4 Jun Mizutani (his teammates at the club were former World No 5 Koki Niwa and former No 21 Masataka Morizono).
“Spending time with somebody like Koki Nawa and seeing Harimoto and other top players made me understand how players like them approach the game. Their focus is more on the quality of strokes rather than hitting more balls and that helped me change my mindset,” he says.
There’s still the prospect of Olympic qualification that Sathiyan has to address before he can book another ticket to Tokyo.
In March, he will compete in two World Table Tennis Contender events in Doha, followed by the World and Asian Olympic qualifiers at the same venue.
Raman meanwhile has already planned what the focus should be on: “increasing the range of shots, improving the short game and counterattack.”
But Sathiyan now has a spring in his step. After all, he’s managed to conquer a title that has eluded him on quite a few occasions. And beating the evergreen Sharath in the final made winning the title all the more prestigious for him.