In May 2019, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran from Chennai, India created history as he became the first Indian table tennis player to break into the top 25 of the World Rankings. In a sport, where Chinese dominance has been at its peak, Indian men find themselves chasing the elite from Japan, Korea Republic, Korea DPR, Chinese Taipei and Germany, apart from China, for global supremacy. India has produced legendary TT players in Kamlesh Mehta, Manjit Dua, Sharath Kamal but none made it to the top 25, which makes this achievement even more commendable.
Record-breaking season for Sathiyan
Sathiyan has had a fine season last year. At the Commonwealth Games 2018, he picked up medals of all three colours. A hard-fought bronze with Manika Batra in the mixed doubles accompanied the silver medal he won in the men’s doubles event with Sharath Kamal.
The elusive gold medal came in the Men’s Team event where they went on to beat African powerhouse Nigeria. History was created. Never before had India won the CWG gold in Men’s Table tennis. If that was not enough, the Asian Games bronze in the Men’s team event was historic as they hustled with their fierce continental giants. Sathiyan played a crucial role in beating Japan in the quarter-finals as the Indian team settled for the third place along with Chinese Taipei.
If this success was not enough, Sathiyan went on to break a further record by becoming the first Indian to qualify for the Men’s World Cup to be held later this year in Shenzen, China in November-December, 2019. Only the top 20 players from all over the world qualify for this annual showpiece event.
Sathiyan had a brilliant Asian Cup where he finished 6th out of 16 of the best players of Asia. In this event, he lost to the reigning Olympic champion Ma Long, where he pulled off a game from the Dragon Warrior. The event provided him with exposure to the very best. Sathiyan’s fine run of form has continued as he finished in the Round of 16 in the mixed doubles event with youngster Archana Kamath at the recently-concluded World Championships held in Budapest, Hungary.
China Open: The toughest tournament on the annual table tennis calendar
The China Open is a platinum tournament, which can be equated to the Tennis Masters 1000. There are six of these platinum tournaments held every year. The China Open becomes extremely competitive due to the participation of all the high-ranked Chinese, Japanese and Korean players. As the hosts, a lot of Chinese youngsters get wildcard entries who are far superior than the best players from many of the European and South American countries.
At 26, Sathiyan is at the peak of his powers. Such is the competition that the World number 24 did not get an entry into the main draw of this tournament. The preliminary rounds are of 4 stages.
At the Round 1 stage, Sathiyan got a bye. However, this tournament has not been easy, as expected. Round 2 of the prelims brought Anton Kallberg of Sweden. Kallberg was crowned champion of a lower-ranking Challenge tournament in Croatia on May 18 this year as he went unbeaten in six matches. Sathiyan found himself in a tight position as the game stretched in to the 7th and final game where he saved 2 match points to win the final game 12-10.
In the next round, he played a former top 20 player from Austria, Stefan Fegerl. This match too went to the 7th game. Sathiyan was 3-2 sets down in the best of 7, where he came from behind to win the match 4-3. In this match, Sathiyan showed immense mental composure as he was 1-6 down in the decider which he ended up winning 11-9.
On the same day, he faced his Dabang Smashers’ teammate Cedric Nuytinck from Belgium. Having last beaten him in the Belgium Open in 2016, Sathiyan was prepared for the challenge to be different yet familiar. Another record 7 games, and another 11-9 win in the nail-biting decider gave him an entry into the main draw Round of 32 against the World Number 1, Fan Zhendong. Matching stroke-to-stroke and raising the quality of each rally, Sathiyan pulled the second game in his favour. Eventually, the Chinese ran out as the winner by beating him 4-1.
There are a lot of positives for Sathiyan from this tournament. He showed immense composure in all the three preliminary rounds where he won the final set with a difference of 2 points. Sathiyan did it the hard way. He played 26 games in 4 matches, winning 13 games and losing 13. Out of 483 points, he won 240 and lost 243 points.
At the point at which he exited the tournament, he was probably the only player with the maximum time on court. If these are the signs of things to come, the lanky 26-year-old could set new records all the way leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.