Sathiyan Gnanasekaran is on a high. Having secured his maiden Olympics berth, the 27-year-old is enjoying an unbeaten run at the Polish Superliga, where he has helped Sokolow Jaroslaw reach the semi-finals. In his final lap 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 making a mark at the much-anticipated event.
In this interview with Firstpost, Sathiyan opens up about his training and preparations, his Olympics dreams, life in a bio-bubble, and a bit more.
Tell us about your experience at Polish Superliga. What's the level of competition there?I have played Polish Superliga once in 2017. Then, I played just 2-3 matches, but now I am playing a lot more. It is one of the best leagues in Europe after Germany and France. They have players from China, Japan, and Korea apart from some leading European players such as Jakub Dyjas, who is the top Polish player, Andrej Gacina, who has already made the cut for Tokyo, and a few more high-quality players.
Out of the 13 teams in the competition, six-seven are really good and offer very good competition. I have played some high-quality matches and am currently on a seven-match unbeaten streak. I hope to continue it when I play the semis on 7 April. The semis will be a tough affair against Dekorglass Dzialdowo, but I hope to do well. I am training hard and working to improve my game because these are the last few matches that I have before the Olympics. I will try to stay aggressive and try and play the way I played at the WTT qualifiers to keep the momentum going for myself and the club.
UTT has put India on the global table-tennis map, feels G Sathiyan. Image: UTT
You have had a busy few months. Starting last year, you have been to Poland, Japan, Doha, and now back in Poland. What are some of the biggest takeaways from your recent international exposure?You're right, I have been one of the busiest TT players during the pandemic. I consider myself very lucky to be able to get some competitions in these times. These events have helped me stay in the groove. I got to play a lot of matches that have helped me stay in the match mode and bring out my best, especially at the Olympic qualifiers where I played some good matches.
I also played a league in Japan, and that was a tremendous experience. It was a perfect build-up for the Olympics because it was the toughest league I have played so far. My biggest takeaway has been that I got some high-quality matches under my belt. In a pandemic year with no international events happening, there were some doubts regarding my preparations and game. But, it was good to win some tough matches, so I am high on confidence.
You have been playing relentlessly since October 2020. Any risks of fatigue or burnout so close to the Olympics?Well, I had a slight niggle in the shoulder during the Nationals but it was just a small strain and I am fine now. I am playing really well and I'll do more fitness work in the months leading up to the Olympics. I won't say I am under any physical strain because I have played much more in the past, so my body is definitely used to it.
The challenge is more mental. It has been very hard to be in a bubble. It is important to be in match mode. There can be a bit of mental fatigue too to turn up and play amid all the quarantine protocols and stop-start nature of events. The number of practice hours abroad are restricted due to COVID protocols, you can't venture out too much either¦so yes, it is tough but you have to get used to it and march on and come out strong.
You spoke about the mental challenges of living in a bio-secure bubble. How exactly is life inside a bubble and what makes it so excruciating?The bio-bubble life is extremely difficult. It is very new for an athlete. We don't have an opportunity to go out for a coffee, or a walk or just look around the city. We lead high-pressure lives and we need an outlet to vent out, and that's precisely what's been restricted a lot.
In Doha, we were confined to one floor. Our routine would be simple - come out of the room, take the stairs, get on the bus to the stadium, come back in the same bus, take the stairs back to the room. We were restricted to one floor. But the good thing was that we could meet each other. We would get together and play Ludo or dumb charades. We would chat, or have coffee. It was a 90-day bubble in Doha, which was really tough.
The toughest bubble life I had was in Japan because I was all alone there. I had no one to talk to. I am a movie buff, so I watched a lot of movies. I did a lot of video calls to the family, read some books, and analysed my matches on video. I also found time to study my opponents.
Mental health is a very critical part of an athlete's well-being, but I have conditioned myself to put TT above everything else. To be able to play in times like these is a privilege in itself. Definitely, there is loneliness, but technology has helped me in a big way. I have just one last bubble to deal with before heading into the Olympics.
Do you think you are peaking at the right time for Tokyo?Yes, I'd like to believe so. I have a great team and I have full confidence in my coach Raman sir and my trainer Ramji Srinivasan who has already chalked out a plan for me so that I can peak physically at the right time. I have a mental conditioning coach who keeps me in the right space and makes sure my mental energies are spent in the right direction. My dietician Ryan Fernando ensures I eat right, which is very important for a travelling athlete. So yes, my team is doing a great job and I feel my planning is very good heading into the Olympics.
As for my game, like I said, I think I am getting good game time against some quality opponents here in Polish Superliga.
What do your first Olympics mean to you?
Qualifying for the Olympics is a very special feeling and a dream come true moment for me. I still remember watching my first Olympics, the 2004 Athens Olympics on TV. Those five Olympic rings still give me goosebumps. I started playing TT seriously in 2001, and 20 years later, here I am, all set for my maiden Olympics. It's been a great journey, full of struggle but everyone supported me, right from my parents and friends to the federation and coaches. All of them really stood through my thick and thin, and I can't thank them enough.
I am definitely excited to be part of the Olympics, but it is time to put the excitement aside and train even hard. The real excitement will be only after I win an Olympics medal. Playing the Olympics was a dream, but I always knew that I have it in me to qualify since I was consistently beating good players. I don't want to travel to Tokyo as an also-ran.
We have won medals at the Commonwealth Games and importantly at the Asian Games which is like a mini Olympics, so that gives me a lot of belief. I know it will be very tough in the singles, but if you reach Round of 16 and get a good draw and have a good day, you can reach the medal rounds. So yes, I'll be definitely looking for a medal. I am working on my serve and receive and my aggressive game. I will be pushing a lot physically too to be in my best shape for the Games.
How did you and the team celebrate the Olympics qualification?
Aah, there were some crazy celebrations. Lots of cake-cutting, a lot of sugar¦especially at the academy with Raman sir and team. At home, my sister had planned a surprise for me, my mom was waiting till 3 AM for me to come home. Officials from Tamil Nadu government came to receive me at the Chennai airport at 2 AM 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 come this far has been a great journey. But, it doesn't stop here. The challenges will be tougher now, but I am determined to work hard and bring glory to the country.
India are sending their biggest ever table tennis contingent to Tokyo Olympics, which means the players are definitely getting better. How do you see your, as well as sport's growth in recent years?India are definitely one of the superpowers in TT now. We have four singles and a mixed-doubles team at the Olympics this year, which is our biggest TT contingent at the Games ever. Last Olympics, we had just four players (all singles), now we have four plus a mixed team. Next Olympics, probably we'll have one more doubles team. So yeah, overall India has developed as a sporting nation, and in TT, we are looked at with a lot of respect from countries like China and Germany.
I would like to thank Ultimate Table Tennis a lot for this change. When I played my first season in 2017, I was 120 in the world, but I ended up beating a lot of top players, including then World No 20 Stefan Fegerl. I was unbeaten in the first season in 2017, and that gave me a lot of confidence. I thought if I can beat these top players here, why not in world tours? That confidence showed in my performance at world tour events and I consistently started beating a lot of quality players.
UTT gave me a great platform to learn from the top players, besides making India a TT destination. I gained a lot of knowledge playing with and against these top foreign players. I defeated then World No 16 Marcos Freitas at the Austrian Open in 2018, and the very next year, I got the better of World No 14 Wong Chu Ting at the Asian Cup in 2019. It was a fantastic journey from there and I no longer fear playing the higher-ranked players. The league is conducted in a very professional manner and a lot of foreign players now want to come to Indian and participate in it. Apart from me, it has produced talents like Manav Thakkar and Archana Kamath who will take Indian TT forward. UTT and Table Tennis Federation of India can surely take credit for putting Indian TT in the right direction.