Table-tennis player Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, who is ranked 44 in world TT ratings, speaks to Nibedita Saha about his preparations for Asian Games, and the sport’s rising popularity across India.
Q. Table tennis has got a lot of attention in recent years in India. What are the factors driving its popularity?
A. Definitely, the performance of Indian players on the world stage and the record eight-medal haul in the 2018 Commonwealth Games has made a huge impact. The advent of CEAT UTT [Ultimate Table Tennis, a national TT tournament] and the increased support by the government and the Table Tennis Federation of India has also helped the sport gain popularity in recent years.
Q. You are number 44 in the ITTF’s international table-tennis rankings. How many challenges did you have to overcome to reach this position?
A. To reach this position, I worked a lot on my skills, emphasising at every small detail along with my coach S. Raman. I started playing more aggressively while taking calculated risks. The exposure to CEAT UTT, playing world-class players, and also more exposure in ITTF Pro Tour events helped me to improve faster. I also worked a lot on my fitness and mental conditioning to face the best in the world.
Q. Most of our players prefer to train abroad. Is it because we don’t proper sporting infrastructure in place in India?
A. I am a player who has achieved by playing in Chennai so far, with, for most of the time, my coach Raman Sir. We built a system in place with proper planning and a road-map. With the huge support of the government and GoSports Foundation, we succeeded in setting up a good team of a fitness trainer, physio, mental conditioning coach and dietician. When you have a good coach with sound knowledge, financial support and a supportive team, it is definitely possible to make it to the top even by training in India.
I went to foreign countries only for small stints to get used to the conditions in a foreign country and get different exposure. I think it will be great if we can bring foreign sparring partners in India for our players to have quality practice sessions. A lot of Indian players go to foreign lands because all this support system is already in place there, under one roof. While the infrastructure in India has improved a lot in the last few years, there is still a long way to go.
Q. Most of our league tournaments, in, say cricket or football, are seen as business enterprises. Would you say the CEAT UTT is attempting to break that model? How has UTT contributed to development of table tennis in India?
A. CEAT UTT has definitely been a great platform for all Indian TT players. You can see the performance of Indian players on the world stage. Personally, for me, I was World No. 120 last year, and now I am on number 44. Beating top players in CEAT UTT last year gave me the confidence to perform better in world tour events. Table tennis is not the primary sport in India, and doesn’t have much money involved in it. So CEAT UTT has been a great initiative in that sense.
Q. At the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, you were awarded a team gold, one silver in men’s doubles and one bronze in mixed doubles, but could not land any medals in the singles format. So where do you think you fell short? And how are you addressing those problems in your preparations for the Asian Games?
A. It was my first CWG and I played quite well; in fact, above my expectations. It would have been great to win a singles medal as well, but I have to give it to Sam Walker from England to whom I lost out in the quarterfinals as he was just too good on that day.
I was happy with the way I played and gave my best, but sometimes the opponent is just too good on a given day.
I am on the right track as I pulled out some big wins in my debut CWG and hope to win medals in all events at the next CWG. Asian Games will be quite hard, but I hope I can improve on my serves and receives to perform even better.
Q. Has table tennis in India evolved as a sport since the time you began your career? And who was your idol when you started playing TT?
A. Jan ove Waldner from Sweden was my idol when I started playing TT, though I love seeing Timo Boll from Germany play these days.
The game has evolved a lot indeed—it has become much faster, there are more rallies and there are also a lot of players now with new and different techniques and game styles. There has been a huge change with the equipment and balls as well. In India, I feel TT is now in transition from being just a leisure sport to becoming a major professional sport.
Q. Do you think promotion of table tennis across schools India would help the game on the national level?
A. Yes definitely, anyone caught young will help.
Q. You have signed with German Bundesliga’s top division club ASV Grunwettersbach Tischtennis. How are you preparing for this alongside the build-up to the Asian Games?
A. I am really excited for German Bundesliga as it a great platform. I will face some top world class players, which will help me improve my skills and perform better on the world stage.
The preparations are going quite well, as I am working on specific skills with my coach Raman Sir. I am also participating in the Korea Open and the Australian Open in July, which will be a good build-up for the Asian Games. Alongside, I will make some training stints in Hong Kong and China before Asian Games, as playing the top Asians will help me in performing better.
Q. What are your views on India’s chances at the Asian Games?
A. Asian Games will be quite hard as the superpowers and top countries of the world will be participating. But with our current form and confidence after the CWG, with a good draw, it is definitely possible to win a medal in a team event.
Q. What measures can be taken to make table tennis a mainstream game in India, so that more people have an opportunity to get professionally involved in the sport?
A. I think TT is now growing as a professional sport, and there are a lot of job opportunities in it as well. Competitions and programmes at the school level and leagues like CEAT UTT are helping the sport gain more eyeballs. If more people take up the sport, it will definitely help further mainstream TT.