The Table Tennis National final has been nothing more than heartbreak for Gnanasekaran Sathiyan. He’s been there three times, but never managed to win the top battle. He reached his fourth on Tuesday. And in Achanta Sharath Kamal, the India No 1, he faced his strongest countryman.
After six grueling games, Sathiyan finally had Match Point. Championship Point. And as he secured his first-ever title in the 82nd edition of the event, he gestured for his paddle, then his jersey, then shook the hand of his opponent, a man who has won the event nine times. On the sidelines of the Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex, Sathiyans coach S Raman, a four-time national champion, began to tear himself up, while the 28-year-old took time to enjoy the performance after his 4-2 (11). -6, 11-7, 10-12, 7-11, 11-8, 11-8) win in men’s singles.
I’ve been trying to win the national title for a long time, Sathiyan told The Indian Express.
I’ve reached three finals and three semifinals, and I think this win is very dear to me personally. The Asian Games and Commonwealth Games achievements are much greater than this, but this was a childhood dream and will remain a memory to cherish forever.
The Chennai boy had taken a 2-0 lead over the 38-year-old, who is ranked 32nd in the world, only for the veteran to improve the procedure.
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 played a fine short piece, but my forehand attack and flicks worked well for me and I’m glad I got this monkey off my back.
A strong forehand was not unseen in the Sathiyan’s repertoire. But he showed that the shot has only gotten bigger since working on it during the lockdown. And with a new modification to its paddle, it has become an even more powerful weapon.
It may explain why he tapped it after winning the title.
New rubber, bigger forehand and tricky services
The lockdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic forced Sathiyan to take time off from competitive table tennis, but it gave him a chance to rebuild his physique. He worked on improving his fitness with his physio Ramji Srinivasan, while Raman began to work out a new strategy to improve his game.
For a long time I knew my forehand wasn’t right and I was working on applying more brush and spin to it, says Sathiyan.
So I replaced the rubber I am using with 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.
However, getting more spin means a lot of wrist work.
I had to put more effort on my wrists, and the extra physical work in the gym allowed me to adapt to the demands of the new bat, he adds.
Raman, however, had taken it upon himself to ensure that his ward introduced greater variations in the ministry. For the past few years, the pair would not have much time to work out due to the busy tour schedule. It’s been the same since the game resumed and Sathiyan traveled to the Polish and Japanese leagues to practice his profession.
In the short break that followed, Raman had prepared a special training program.
This time my first focus was to change its service profile. We had detailed discussions about how he will serve and serve again. Then we went through several service moves, says the 51-year-old coach.
Whether it was spin, rotation or angle, we studied every aspect and developed a number of different styles for him. Most importantly, let him serve as a left-handed and we worked on improving the banana (curving) return. The way he set up his forehand attack was key, and the new rubber gives him better control and impact to do that, along with playing deceptive shots, Raman says.
Nationals ready, then Olympic qualifiers
In recent years, Sathiyan has made rapid progress in the rankings. The current number 37 in the world was no less than 24 of the best for an Indian and even reached a quarter finals of the World Cup in 2019.
However, it was all meant to get ready for a run at the Tokyo Olympics. And he went on to explore different avenues to help him prepare as much as possible for the quadrennial even in July.
Traveling to Poland, where he played for Sokolow SA Jaroslaw, helped him get back into rhythm. But a stint in Japan, where he played for the Okayama Rivets, meant he could work 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 someone like Koki Nawa and seeing Harimoto and other top players made me understand how players like her approach the game. Their focus is more on the quality of shots than hitting more balls, and that’s helped me change my mindset, he says.
There is still the prospect of Olympic qualification that Sathiyan must discuss 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 has already figured out what the focus should be: increasing the range of shots, improving the short game and counter-attack.
But Sathiyan now has a spring in his stride. After all, he managed to capture a title that has eluded him a few times. And beating the evergreen Sharath in the final made winning the title all the more prestigious for him.
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