For an international athlete, who is used to travelling and playing all round the year, 2020 has been absolutely unimaginable. Months of uninterrupted isolation left them without access to state-of-the-art training facilities. With no sparring partners around, they were left to find their own, ingenious ways of training at home. India's No. 2 paddler, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, is no exception.
Gnanasekaran did keep practicing with an imported robot at home, and later could get a few weeks of sparring when restrictions were lifted. But that, by no means, is akin to the high-level training that one needs in order to prepare to face the best players in the world.
Thus, the World No. 32 had a lot of anxiety to battle right before embarking on his flight to Poland to play for Sokolow S. A. Jaroslaw in the Polish Superliga.
Sathiyan overcame all his tension and trepidation with aplomb, and got four wins in a stunning display after seven months of no competitive play. Having come back to his home in Chennai, the 27-year-old now sets his sights on the tougher Japanese T-League where he will be part of the Okayama Rivets.
As he completes his 14-day quarantine before leaving for Japan towards the end of this month, Sathiyan spoke exclusively to Sportskeeda, sharing his experiences at the Polish Superliga and the lessons he learned this year.
Q: Do share your feeling of playing after seven long months. How different was it from when you played matches under normal circumstances?
I was really excited before the match. At the same time, I was quite anxious as well. I had doubts about how I would play, or how the body would react, or if I would mentally be able to stay focused. But at the same time, I tried to approach it differently. I told myself, “I am not going to compare myself to the old Sathiyan when I play matches now.”
It would be unfair to expect myself to play at that level after a gap of seven months. I went into a mode where I won’t react much. I decided to just observe what is coming good and what is not. I knew I had to have a different mindset. And that approach worked.
I was rusty at first, but in the last two matches I got better after settling down there. I really enjoyed the atmosphere with the cheers, the competition, the music going on. I truly enjoyed the tension too.
Q: For an athlete, how important was getting a taste of competitive matches after months of practice at home?
It’s quite important because it is a very different ballgame when you start competing and play matches. The outside factors add a different flavor to it. It’s really important to keep that ingredient of competition in your preparation and your regime. Otherwise, you won’t know where you stand even if you train hard. I felt all great in training but after I went there, I still felt rusty. It’s important to always play some matches when you are training side by side.
Q: How has travel changed from before and how have you coped with it?
It was a very different experience travelling, especially when you see airports half empty. With all that gear and masks, it was very different. Wearing a mask in an 8 or 9-hour flight is never easy. On the return flight I got used to it. But the main thing is I felt safe.
In the beginning I had my doubts and was a little scared. But the airlines were wonderful. They had the gear and the protection and sanitizers everywhere. The airlines are doing their part to maintain the safety measures, but passengers need to be more responsible on their part.
Q: How did you train in lockdown and how do you aim to continue with it?
In the beginning of the lockdown I played with a robot. I will do the same again for the next 14 days – training with a robot, doing yoga and some fitness training. Initially, for the first two months I did robot training, but after that I started training with (Subramaniam) Raman Sir.
During the last two and a half months, I was training with Sir at the Center with some sparring partners, because a human is always very different from playing a robot. You need to adapt to it, as table tennis is a very one-on-one game. It’s dynamic and challenging. I focused on my game rather than on the opponent’s game. I worked on new skills which are important to go to the next level. So I am just improving, and I feel with more matches in the future, I will do better.
Q: Which area of your game have you worked on more in this period?
Serve and receive are really important. I am a very strong rally game player but it’s crucial to have aggression and strong serve and strong receive. It’s important to make a strong start to the match. My game gets better and better when it gets into the baseline game as I rally well. But at the top level, they don’t give you that space to rally. My game is good, but it’s not enough to regularly compete against the top 10 or top 20.
Of course, you also need to work on the physical aspect of the game. I worked on both areas, where I could pop up some muscles and build my physical strength and at the same time I worked hard on my serve and receive.
Q: You will next play at the Japanese T-League which will have a lot of top players. How much confidence has your performance in Poland given you ahead of that?
Getting four good wins in Poland was a good sign for me that I am still there and I could still win matches despite a seven-month break. The athletes who competed with me were playing regularly at the Polish league. That was a big boost of confidence for me.
Japan is going to be an altogether different ballgame, because it is a far superior league. I was the favorite to win matches in Poland, but in Japan I am going to be the underdog in 90% of games. I am going to play the top 5, the top 10 and Olympic medalists.
In Japan, it’s more like I have nothing to lose. It's going to be a great opportunity for me. All the doubts and anxiety that I had so far have now been cleared by my performance in Poland. I now feel pretty confident.
I think I can play my top-level game there, and if I can pull off some big upsets, then it’s even better. Japanese people really love me, and I had a lot of fans when I beat Harimoto (Tomokazu) and Koki (Niwa). The Okayama Rivets team is really looking forward to me and I hope I can make my debut in a great way.
Q: What would you say has been the biggest lesson you learned from all the unusual experience this year?
It’s been a great life lesson for us all. I have become more aware of myself now. I have got close to my family and my mother. I always wanted more time to spend with my family, which is a luxury for athletes like us. I also got to understand myself more, and how I react to situations as well as my likes, dislikes, interests. It was like discovering myself anew.
This was also a situation where everybody needed to be strong together. So, I could connect with my friends and help out each other. I also bonded with my fans a lot over social media. I am really happy that I could help many people on and off the court during this time. Challenges make you a tougher person, and prepare yourself for the bigger challenges ahead of you.Published 07 Nov 2020, 16:43 IST