Its 3 am in the morning, an 18-year old Sathiyan Gnanasekaran is attempting to solve a Laplace Transformation problem for his engineering assignment due for submission in less than 12 hours. Three cups of coffee and the fear of not reaching the pass mark fuelled his desire to stay awake till the wee hours of the morning. However, it was not until eight hours back that this struggling engineer defeated junior world number one paddler Niwa Koki to secure a finals berth at the Asian Juniors in Jaipur.
The match is scheduled for 6 pm, and Sathiyan is at his wits’ end trying to balance both the physical pressure of becoming the world’s best junior table tennis player and the mental requirement of completing an engineering degree. The Chennai-based college he studies in, has requested Sathiyan to complete these assignments during his junior tour matches, if he wants to avoid repeating another year. He would go onto lose the final in a closely fought affair, with just 6 hours of sleep under his belt. The American Athletics Association has made it mandatory for their athletes to sleep 12 hours prior to any given event.
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, he said, “The only reason I completed my engineering was I knew there was no other way to go ahead. I literally finished it because I wanted to get it out of the way. My dream is and always will be to be the world’s best table tennis player, but the ground realities are such that, if I don’t make, I just might die starving. I couldn’t it make me a victim, every athlete to who wants to represent the country needs to make sacrifices. This was mine, I needed to prove to my family that I’m strong enough to do both.”
Sathiyan didn’t even get time to celebrate that win, as he had to go back to Chennai and prepare for his examinations. He said, ”The only reason I was ever even allowed to play table tennis was because, ever since a young age I was told to become one, and until I achieved that goal everything else would be secondary. I love my parents, they have given me things I could never think off, so it was important I finished it. I didn’t celebrate the world number 1 victory because I had my first semester exams immediately after I reached home.”
Only second Indian to win table tennis tour title
It’s been eight years since he faced a daily conflict of prioritising the Lissajous curve over a top spin backhand. Quite interesting to note that Sathiyan achieved a world junior ranking of number 9, while studying engineering. He added, “It somewhat kept me in-line, I was always doing something even when I didn’t like it. I think even during my table tennis career, there are a lot of things, that I might not like doing, but I have to do it. It helped me overcome the laziness, but I didn’t like it one bit.”
Cut to 2016, Sathiyan is on the verge of making history! He entered the Belgium open seeded 25, but the Tamil Nadu paddler transcended his performances to take down six higher seeds including Sweden’s Harold Andersen in the semis, to book a first ever ITTF tour finals spot. The magnitude of this achievement was that he was only the second Indian ever to achieve this feat.
The semi-final against the Swede went the seven set distance. Now, eight years since his Asian Junior Open final, Sathiyan found himself in a similar spot, but this time, there was no assignment, it was just him and his dream. The dream of donning the tri-colour on the grandest stage of them all, the dream of winning an ITTF tour title and the dream of proving himself wrong.
He said, “When I used to study engineering, all I ever thought to myself was is table tennis a legitimate career in India. It was always ingrained in my head that it wasn’t, hence I questioned what I was doing on a daily basis, till I had some prominent success. This was that chance to tell myself that I finally did something relevant in the sport. Something much more than attaining a degree on paper, the victory gave me much-needed confidence.”
Yes, Sathiyan became only the second Indian ever to win a tour title, after his hero Achanta Sharath Kamal. A straight sets victory against hometown favourite Belgium’s Cedric Nuytinck saw Sathiyan collapse to the ground in relief rather than jubilation. He said, “Not making the Indian Olympic squad dented my confidence a lot. And also as I said, I proved that my performances can trump any self-doubt within me.”
The victory has seen him reach 112 in the world rankings, 29 places better than what he was a month ago. He added. “This is by far the most important victory in my career, prior to this, I had some very good junior results, but never had any major senior results apart from National Championship victories. Of course, nationals mattered a lot but to be the best, you have to fight against the best. Hence, it was a very important victory for me, now I’m targeting a top 100 finish by December. I will be in Germany playing third division Bundesliga, practicing to achieve this goal.”
Education important to pursue a relatively unpopular sport in India: Sathiyan
A closer look at his career indicates a case of natural progression. Winning his first sub-junior national tournament in 2001, Sathiyan went on to have a prolific junior international career. An Asian Juniors victory against world number 6 Yin Hang, and world number 1 Nini Kowa propelled him to a top 30 ranking. He said, “My junior career gave me an idea of how the sport was going to be in the future. Despite making the world top 30, I hardly had any funds to go abroad and play events. My parents were sponsoring with whatever they had. So, I knew that even if I was really good there was a high chance I wouldn’t make enough money to survive. Hence, engineering became a necessity for me. There was no guarantee that I would be attending events abroad, regardless of the situation.”
Upset about the growth approach taken by India’s table tennis authorities, Sathiyan repented on the lack of international exposure. He said, “I will not deny the fact that there are a lot of national events, but for players to get better they need international tournaments. I used to attend only 2-3 junior tournaments in a year, I could have been much higher ranked if I had more exposure. Hence, a focus on giving the younger players more exposure from a young age, so that the transition from junior to senior level isn’t that drastic, otherwise it becomes very difficult for players to adapt. Even now both me and Achanta are playing in Germany so we can get regular exposure. Other Indians are spread across leagues, but if we were given this access earlier, we would be at a much better place right now.”
The rise of Tamil Nadu table tennis
All of India’s Rio Olympic representatives crashed out in the first round, but Sathiyan feels this is a one off. He said, “All of the Men’s team is playing abroad right now. Hopefully, if everything goes well, we will have 3 paddlers in the world top 100 for the first time in history. Plus we made the division 1 of the world table tennis team championship. So, everything is looking up, it’s just that luck didn’t favour us that day. We are all putting in the hard work, and I sincerely believe 2017 will be a landmark year for us.”
Three of India’s top four Men’s paddlers are from Tamil Nadu, making it the hub for the sport in the country. A flourishing school and junior circuit has seen the sport become a mainstay in the state’s Physical Education system. Sathiyan added, “I think ever since I was young, I’ve seen table tennis academies everywhere across the city, so it really was always accessible. For me, my mother enrolled me in a nearby academy, because they wanted me to play an individual sport. The junior league system also makes sure youngsters are playing regularly. So it’s an impressive system, probably the best in the country.”
Currently plying his trade for 3.Bundesliga side, Kaiserslautern, Sathiyan is only the second Indian to play in Germany. The other Indian Sharath Kamal represents Borussia Dusseldorf in the league’s top division. Sathiyan added, “My end goal for 2017 is to be in the world top 50, I know it’s easier said than done, but I like keeping high goals for myself, gives me an idea of what I’m aiming for.”
Engineering is India’s staple profession, and preparation for it begins in school. Parents and peers give you more respect if you take science rather than pursue sport. For many the conflict is never ending, with almost 70 % (survey) choosing their education over their actual dream. However, Sathiyan’s rise as one of India’s top paddlers gives everyone hope that even if you do end up within it, there is always enough time to pursue your goals.