In this interview, Indian table tennis exponent G Sathiyan talks about his training and preparations, his Olympic dreams, life in a bio bubble and some more.
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran is over the moon. After securing his top spot for the Olympics, the 27-year-old enjoys an unbeaten run in the Polish Superliga, where he helped Sokolow Jaroslaw reach the semi-finals. In his latest round of preparations for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, the young paddler is confident of continuing his good run in the Japanese capital three months from now and leaving a mark on the highly anticipated event.
In this interview with First postSathiyan talks about his training and preparations, his Olympic dreams, life in a bio-bubble and some more.
Tell us about your experiences in the Polish Superliga. What is the level of competition there?
I played the Polish Superliga once in 2017. Then I only played 2-3 games, but now I play a lot more. It is one of the best competitions in Europe after Germany and France. They have players from China, Japan and Korea, apart from some leading European players such as Jakub Dyjas, the Polish top player, Andrej Gacina, who has already chosen Tokyo, and a few more high-quality players.
Out of the 13 teams in the league, six-seven are really good and offer very good competition. I have played a number of high quality games and am currently on an unbeaten streak of seven games. I hope to continue when I play the semifinal on April 7th. The semi-final will be a difficult affair against Dekorglass Dzialdowo, but I hope to do well. I train hard and work to improve my game because these are the last few games I have for the Olympics. I will try to stay aggressive and try to play like I played in the WTT qualifiers to keep the momentum going for myself and the club.
You have had a busy few months. From last year you have been in Poland, Japan, Doha and now in Poland again. What are some of the biggest takeaways of your recent international fame?
You’re right, I’ve been one of the busiest TT players during the pandemic. I consider myself lucky to have been able to win some competitions during these times. These events have helped me stay in the groove. I’ve played a lot of matches that have helped me stay in match mode and give my best, especially in the Olympic qualifiers where I played some good matches.
I also played a league in Japan, which was a great experience. It was a perfect run-up to the Olympics as it was the toughest competition I have played so far. My biggest takeaway was getting some high quality matches under my belt. In a pandemic year with no international events, there were some doubts about my preparations and play. But it was good to win some tough matches, so I’m very confident.
You have been playing ruthlessly since October 2020. Risk of fatigue or burnout so close to the Olympics?
Well, I had a little problem in the shoulder during the Nationals, but it was only a small tribe and I’m fine now. I play really well and I do more fitness work in the months leading up to the Olympics. I won’t say I’m under physical strain as I’ve played a lot more in the past so my body is definitely used to it.
The challenge is more mental. It was very difficult to be in a bubble. It is important to be in match mode. There can also be a bit of mental fatigue to show up and play amid all the quarantine protocols and the stop-start nature of events. The number of practice hours abroad is limited due to COVID protocols, you can’t go out too much, yes it’s difficult, but you have to get used to it and keep marching and coming out strong.
You spoke of the mental challenges of living in a bio-secure bubble. What exactly is life in a bubble and what makes it so unbearable?
Biobubble life is extremely difficult. It is very new to an athlete. We don’t have the opportunity to have a coffee, walk or just look around the city. We live under high pressure and we need an outlet to vent, which is exactly what is often restricted.
In Doha we were limited to one floor. Our routine would be simple: get out of the room, take the stairs, get on the bus to the stadium, come back on the same bus, take the stairs back to the room. We were limited to one floor. But the great thing was that we could meet. We got together and played Ludo or dumb charades. We would talk or drink coffee. It was a 90-day bubble in Doha, which was very difficult.
The toughest bubble life I had was in Japan because I was there all alone. I had no one to talk to. I’m a movie buff, so I’ve watched a lot of movies. I have had many video conversations with the family, read some books and analyzed my matches on video. I also found time to study my opponents.
Mental health is a very critical part of athletes’ well-being, but I’ve conditioned myself to put TT above everything else. It is a privilege in itself to be able to play in these times. Sure, there is loneliness, but technology has helped me a lot. I only have one last bubble to deal with before I go to the Olympics.
Do you think you’re peaking at the right time for Tokyo?
Yes, I like to believe it. I have a great team and I have full confidence in my coach Raman mister and my trainer Ramji Srinivasan who has already drawn up a plan for me so that I can physically peak at the right time. I have a mental conditioning coach who keeps me in the right space and makes sure my mental energy is spent in the right direction. My dietitian Ryan Fernando makes sure that I eat well, which is very important for a traveling athlete. So yes, my team is doing great and I think my planning for the Olympics is very good.
As for my game, as I said, I think I will get good playing time against some good opponents here in the Polish Superliga.
What do your first Olympics mean to you?
Qualifying for the Olympics is a very special feeling for me and a dream come true. I still remember seeing my first Olympics, the 2004 Olympics in Athens, on TV. I still get goosebumps from those five Olympic rings. I started playing TT seriously in 2001, and 20 years later, here I am, all set for my first Olympics. It has been a great journey, full of struggle, but everyone has supported me, from my parents and friends to the federation and coaches. They all really stood out because of my fat and thin, and I can’t thank them enough.
I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of the Olympics, but it’s time to put the excitement aside and even train hard. The real excitement won’t be until after I win an Olympic medal. Playing in the Olympics was a dream, but I’ve always known I have what it takes to qualify as I consistently beat good players. I don’t want to travel to Tokyo as an also rider.
We’ve won medals at the Commonwealth Games and, most importantly, the Asian Games, which is kind of a mini Olympics, so that gives me a lot of faith. I know it will be very difficult in singles, but if you hit round 16 and get a good draw and have a good day, you can make it to the medal rounds. So yes, I am definitely looking for a medal. I work on my service and reception and my aggressive game. I will also be pushing a lot physically to be in my best shape for the Games.
How did you and the team celebrate the Olympic qualifying?
Aah, there were some crazy parties. Lots of cake cutting, lots of sugar, especially at the academy with Raman sir and team. At home my sister had planned a surprise for me, my mother waited until 3am until I got home. Tamil Nadu government officials met me at Chennai airport at 2am, which was very nice of them. The media was so supportive. It was a great, great feeling. From a world ranking of 412 in 2012 to get this far was an amazing journey. But it doesn’t end here. The challenges will be more difficult now, but I am determined to work hard and bring glory to the country.
India is sending their biggest ever table tennis quota to the Tokyo Olympics, which means the players are sure to get better. How do you see yourself, but also sporting growth in recent years?
India is definitely one of the superpowers in TT right now. We have four singles and a mixed doubles team at the Olympics this year, which is our largest ever TT contingent at the Games. Last Olympics we only had four players (all singles), now we have four plus a mixed team. Next Olympics will probably have a doubles team. So yes, overall India has developed as a sports country, and in TT we are viewed with great respect by countries like China and Germany.
I want to say a big thank you to Ultimate Table Tennis for this change. When I played my first season in 2017, I was 120 in the world, but I ended up beating many top players, including the then world No. 20 champion Stefan Fegerl. I was unbeaten in the first season of 2017 and that gave me a lot of confidence. I thought if I can beat these top players here, why not on world tours? That confidence was reflected in my performance at world tour events and I started beating many quality players consistently.
UTT gave me a great platform to learn from the top players in addition to making India a TT destination. I have gained a lot of knowledge by playing with and against these foreign top players. I then beat World No. 16 Marcos Freitas at the Austrian Open in 2018, and the following year at the Asian Cup in 2019, I beat World No. 14 Wong Chu Ting. fear of playing against the higher ranked players. The league is run in a very professional manner and many foreign players now want to come to and participate in India. Aside from me, it has spawned talents such as Manav Thakkar and Archana Kamath who will bring the Indian TT to the fore. UTT and the Table Tennis Federation of India can certainly take credit for putting the Indian TT in the right direction.
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