by Kabir Nagpal
A journey of major effort
An engineer by education, Sathiyan hails from the city of Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu, south India. At the age of 18 in 2011, the Indian table tennis star took home bronze at the ITTF Junior World Championships, and that is when he first showcased his class for the world to admire.
Having received support to pursue his dream of table tennis through the Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme – named after the famous Indian cricketer – his style of play has always been one of hard work and hard hitting from the start of any match.
He claimed his first professional title at the ITTF World Tour Belgium Open in 2016, when he saw off local hero Cédric Nuytinck in the final (15-13, 11-6, 11-2, 17-15). Thus he became only the second Indian player to win such an event, the first was Sharath Kamal Achanta on the ITTF World Tour in 2010 in Egypt. He followed it up the next year by making 2017 even more special.
A bronze medal in the ITTF Challenge Plus Thailand Open, a silver medal in the men’s doubles category at the ITTF majors in Bulgaria and finally rounding off the year with a gold medal in the men’s singles at the ITTF Challenge Spanish Open, in Almeria.
Such a consistent showing across the world events brought Sathiyan the highest sports honour of his country, as he received the Arjuna Award in 2018, facilitated by the President of India. Speaking about his journey, he admitted it takes a special mindset to get where he is:
“My coach used to tell me, if someone plays 100 balls, you play 101. This was the attitude I had in my childhood. But that has changed. Now, it’s play two balls and make sure the third one doesn’t come back.” Sathiyan Gnanasekaran
The Japanese challenger
Now the highest ranking Indian male table tennis player, Sathiyan entered the ITTF-ATTU Asian Table Tennis Championships with a good feeling about himself. This was evident when he played against the world no.5, Tomokazu Harimoto earlier, with the two extra matches India had played in the group stages also making a difference.
After progressing through in style to the quarter-finals, Team India made the best start possible versus Japan. Sathiyan saw off 16-year-old Harimoto in straight games(11-4, 11-7, 12-10), sending shockwaves around the Among Rogo Stadium. It was the first match of the tournament for Harimoto, and Sathiyan had taken full advantage. He was essentially fired up to face such an elite opponent, being quicker on the attack and not letting the Japanese prodigy any time to settle.
Sadly, the Japanese outfit hit back with three straight wins as Maharu Yoshimura accounted for Sharath Kamal Achanta (11-8, 10-12, 11-5, 14-12), Takuya Jin overcame Harmeet Desai (11-7, 6-11, 11-6, 11-2), and eventually Sharath was forced to withdraw while losing 3-7 in the opening game against Harimoto through sheer exhaustion.
Despite his efforts going in vain, Sathiyan is upbeat about the future – as he should be. The Indian contingent in recent years has become one of the names to watch out for during major tournaments. His colleagues have immense talent as well as the faith of one another.
For someone who once thought getting to the top 50 of the world is a laughable dream, it is exciting to see where his multitude of efforts end up taking him and his country. Who knows, maybe in about a year’s time, he may be repeating his feat of rocking Japanese fans’ hopes should he reach the pinnacle of sport at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games:
“I need to work on my receives and try to hit my first three balls quite hard. I need to get more power into my strokes. Back in 2012, I used to laugh when Raman sir (coach) said that top 50 should be my aim. And now here I am. Now I believe it is definitely possible to win a medal in Tokyo 2020.” Sathiyan Gnanasekaran
The Indian men’s team now play in the fifth to sixth playoffs after having beaten Team Singapore 3-0. Next up for Sathiyan and co are Hong Kong, in what is surely to be an intense match.