By Neha Aggarwal
The 2nd Indian to win a ITTF World Tour event, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran was possibly the happiest man on earth.
“I had never thought I would go so far. In the previous tournament I lost in the first round, at Belgium my aim was to beat a higher ranked player and just enjoy the game. I had not even dreamt of winning the title here. After I won the last point I realized what I had done. My phone was flooded with congratulatory messages from people back home”
But to experience that winning feeling and the taste of success he had to wrestle some big barriers.
The engineering days
India is a highly academic focused country where sports is not treated as a sustainable career. Sathiyan is also a product of the same society, however he also followed his passion. As a student of St.Joseph’s College of Engineering in Chennai, located in Southern part of India, Sathiyan would constantly juggle between school and table tennis training while growing up. While most of his competitors would train 6-7 hours a day, Sathiyan would train only 2-3 hours as he had to attend school and study at home in order to finish his engineering. Sathiyan admits that cruising past those days were the toughest part of his life.
This schedule worked fine as a junior, but the talented Sathiyan knew he had to put in more hours on the table in order to be successful at the senior level.
“There was a point in life when I was in a dilemma; it had to make a decision between education and table tennis” revealed Sathiyan. “My teammates Soumyajit Ghosh and Harmeet Desai had already established their footing at the senior level. I was lagging behind and that was a big motivation for me to work harder.”
Quitting either of the two was never an option for Sathiyan. With immense grit and hard work, he successfully graduated as an engineer in July 2014 and started working towards his table tennis goals with a renewed plan.
Coach S.Raman: The strategist
The architect of Sathiyan’s incredible feat is is coach S.Raman, former Olympian and National Champion from India. “Raman and I are a great combo because we both love being challenged everyday and we work together wonderfully to overcome those challenges. Its been 4 years that I have been training under him and he has completely transformed my game!” explained Sathiyan.
Adding a strong attack from both flanks to his already existing formidable defense, Sathiyan has emerged as a versatile player.
He further reveals how Raman gives him “Pointers” before every game. These pointers are small details about the opponent’s game that make a huge difference when executed at crucial stages. Raman also takes off the “pressure of performance” from Sathiyan’s mind. “He tells me not worry about the result and that he will take the responsibility if I loose. I just need to focus on the task at hand and not bother being answerable to people back home”
Sathiyan is sponsored by the GoSports Foundation, Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu and his employer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India. With three big sponsors in hand, also comes the responsibility and the mental pressure to do justice to the faith that these organizations have bestowed on him. But Raman helps him cope up with such distractions.
The major setback
In November 2015, Sathiyan went through a very tough phase with the unexpected, heartbreaking demise of his father. The shock saddened him and halted the normalcy of his life. Sathiyan explained with a heavy heart, “My dad loved table tennis, he would ask me about my game all the time. After he passed away, his dream to see me a successful table tennis player was my biggest motivation to start training again.”
Thus, Sathiyan put all his heart and soul into the game his father loved the most. He left no stone unturned every single day to reach the pinnacle.
With these hardships at a young age, Sathiyan built the capacity to keep fighting despite roadblocks.
“I became mentally strong after my engineering days and dad’s demise. I believe that if I overcame those tough times, I can definitely battle the hardships on court.” says the confident 23-year old paddler.
With a short term goal of breaking into top 100 in world ranking, Sathiyan is definitely on the right path. In the long term, he aims to emerge into the top 30 in the world and qualify for the Olympics as a team for India.
A combination of strategic hard work, immense mental tenacity, intellect during games and natural talent, Sathiyan is undoubtedly a part of a new generation of Indians aspiring to achieve what Achanta Sharath Kamal did and possibly even beyond.