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Interview with Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, the underdog champion

The interview with Sathiyan Gnanasekaran—the Table Tennis sensation who broke through the elite top-100 ranking released this month.


Sathiyan Gnanasekaran (Image credit: ITTF, Chris Petkov)
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran (Image credit: ITTF, Chris Petkov)

For Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, a fresh engineering graduate, September 24, 2016, was a red-letter day: He had become only the second Table Tennis player to win a Pro Tour title. The aim was just to get into the next round, and improve his ranking. “It’s all an underdog can do,” Sathiyan had said adding he had “no clue how that happened.”

But from there on, it’s been nothing short of a fairy-tale ride for the Chennai ace. With the wave of a magic wand, Sathiyan sensationally transitioned from the junior’s circuit—won a bronze at the team event of the 2011 World Junior Championships—to the top level: in the recently concluded CEAT Ultimate Table Tennis, he stunned world number eight Wong Chun Ting of Hong Kong.

In India, however, humorous that may sound, it’s a common belief that an engineer can do anything. Here’s what the rising champion, the underdog who broke through the top-100 rankings for the first time, had to say to that in an email interview.

From winning the Belgium Open last year to crushing world number eight Wong Chun Ting in the recently concluded Ultimate Table Tennis league, has Sathiyan Gnanasekaran become a force to reckon with?

Yes, definitely. A win at the Belgium Open gave me immense confidence and I started believing that I have the potential to be a world-class player. I worked quite hard on small details in the last one year, especially with my coach S. Raman and that has really been helping me perform well on the world stage.

I was glad that I could achieve five big wins over top 50 players in the UTT and hope to take up the good form forward; and definitely, I feel that I’m moving in the right direction to achieve my target of hitting the Top 50 in a year—and the long-term dream of being a Top-10 player.

Were you an engineer first or a Table Tennis enthusiast?

Table Tennis has always been my first love. I had an immense passion for TT, though I had a liking for Science and Computers. When I was doing both at the same time, that was when I realised that I should take up the sport as my profession as that was the only thing which made me feel complete.

What was going through your mind when you took up engineering even after winning bronze at World Junior Championship in 2011?

I took up engineering in 2010 actually. I was doing very well in the Juniors section in the country at that time. I was very young and also since my family had a rich academic background, they wanted me to keep both the options (academics and sport) open and pursue it together.

The drawback, I would say, is that I was good at both. In my 10th and 12th Board exams, I’d garnered 96 per cent and 90 percent respectively. I, therefore, ended up with engineering as it was considered a safe option anytime in Indian society. It was a tough job balancing both, but I’m really happy that I could complete it successfully.

You are a natural counter-attacking player and also have worked a lot on your serves. Where are the other areas you need to focus more?

Yes. Service and aggressive play have been the key to my success. I will have to work on a variety of receives and get stronger in attacking first hand. I have developed good speed and stamina but still, can improve on fitness and power and strength.

Was Ultimate TT league an overall success? Did young players like you get enough exposure?

Definitely. It was the best thing that has happened to the sport and was also very well organised. It was a great experience playing with top class players of the world in the home environment. It was a great opportunity for all the Indian players to learn from the top players in close quarters and it will help us perform better in the international arena.

What are your future targets?

I am working on a process-oriented approach as I have been doing it in the past and taking it step by step. My immediate target would be hit top 50 in the world and win a Gold in Commonwealth Games 2018 at Gold Coast, Australia.

Long term target is, definitely, to be a top-10 player and win an Olympic medal for my country.

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