From first international tournament to qualifying for the Olympics in Doha, life comes a full-circle for G Sathiyan
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran was just 12 when he participated in his first international tournament. He was selected for the India U15 team and was set to fly to Doha via Delhi from Chennai. But his father was apprehensive to let the kid travel alone to Delhi from Chennai.
"The federation sent my flight tickets but dad also wanted to accompany me. So he travelled by train for two days and reached Delhi. He wanted to make sure that everything is in place before I left for Doha," recollected the ace paddler to Olympic Channel after qualifying for the Olympics.
It was a trip of many firsts for the young Sathiyan. He got his first Indian kit, first international flight and to top it all his first international medal.
"Doha was a fantastic experience back then. It was very special. Going on an international flight was itself a huge thing for me as we were a pretty middle-class family back then. When I saw the kit for the first time in Delhi, the India kit, I was overwhelmed. It was a dream come true moment. What made the trip more memorable was that we came back with the silver medal from Doha, India's first in the ITT Cadet and Junior Circuit," he recalled.
Qatar's capital has always been a happy hunting ground for him. He has won several laurels in Doha but this time the stakes were higher than before.
After narrowly missing out on the main event at the Rio Olympics, he was determined to make an appearance in Tokyo. But the Coronavirus pandemic threw all plans out of the window and the waiting game began. He had to turn the adversity into an opportunity and with the help of his coach Subramaniam Raman, former table tennis player and Arjuna Awardee, embarked on a journey that would transform him as a player.
"For a sportsperson, the Coronavirus pandemic was a patience-testing game. It was a different kind of challenge. I did have a robot in my home, which I got during the World Cup 2019, that helped me hit some balls. But what happened primarily was that I started understanding my own game more profoundly in the lockdown. (Previously) We were focusing on the opponent and in the lockdown, I was looking at myself to understand Sathiyan better. That helped me a lot. I was doing yoga to keep myself calm. It was definitely hard because you needed to stay in the game mentally."
In his drive for excellence, he also built a small hall on the terrace of his house so that he could practice at his convenience and remain unaffected by the lockdown which would prevent him from stepping out of the house. But what he did next was a gamechanger.
"We got a black-top table. The nationals and the Olympic qualifiers were held on the same table. In general, the Indian tables are grainy so it is fast and spinny. You need to react a lot. The European tables are slower. There are more rallies. So you need to have more control in India. Whereas, the black-top is even more granier and even faster than the Indian table. So you must get accustomed to the pace of it. I started putting in more hours on the same table and conditions. That really helped me."
For his perseverance, he was rewarded in February when he won his first nationals beating Sharath Kamal in the finals with a convincing 4-2 win.
"Mostly I train in Europe. But playing in Europe and India are two very different things. It is like playing on an Australian pitch one day and then play on an Indian one in the next. This time I got the time to prepare well and hence arrived at the nationals with a better mindset."
His coach, Raman formulated another trick that helped him immensely to tackle the faster black board.
"I used more sticky rubber on the forehand to have more spin and make the most of the conditions. Raman Sir came up with the idea and it worked really well. He is a mastermind. We prepared thoroughly for the last six months and I could finally tick off my two goals in the bucket list - winning the nationals and securing an Olympic quota," Sathiyan revealed.
On returning to India, the ace paddler wants to celebrate by having sweets and chocolates that he was barred from eating for the past one year and of course breathe the salty Chennai wind.
"Being in Chennai is itself a celebration!"
Following the much-needed (sweet) break, he will be in Poland to play for his club Sokolow S.A. Jaroslaw in the Polish Superliga playoffs. His first step towards preparing himself for a shot at an Olympic medal.