As the coronavirus-enforced lockdown extended into weeks, and then stretched into months, a robot became Sathiyan Gnanasekaran's closest friend, and ultimate rival. For nearly four months, Sathiyan played against just the Butterfly Amicus Prime " a pared down apparatus rather than a full-scale humanised robot " at home as the lockdown prevented training against a human competitor.
"It was fun in the first month training against a robot. Then it got boring," Sathiyan told Firstpost in September. "You don't feel that connect!"
For Sathiyan, the boredom also arose from being cooped up in the house for months at a time.
"I don't remember ever staying at home first of all for four months. Not playing. The maximum time I have spent at home was probably two months, that too during my Standard XII board exams," he added.
To get over the monotony of playing against a robot, Sathiyan started adding challenges to his training routine, monitored online by his personal coach S Raman. Given the level of variation the robot allows, the paddler would make changes to settings every week. It was still not ideal, but for Sathiyan, the training session helped him work on something that he believed was lacking from his game.
"My rally game has always been really good and in the baseline game I can take on the top 20, or even the top 10, players. But the point would be over before I could get there many times," he said. "That's why we were working majorly on serving and receiving (during the lockdown). My serving and receiving is good, but when you compare it to the world's top 20, or the top 10 players, there's definitely a long way to go. These two aspects are very critical to break into the next level. During the lockdown when I didn't have anyone to practice with, the best thing I could do was work on my serve and receive."
Working on his serve and receive game was part of something his coach had branded 'Mission 2.0', which included working on technical skills, mental aspects and on his flexibility with yoga. Sathiyan also changed his equipment, trading his 'very fast racquet' for a bit slower one. "I needed to develop my stroke, and not just play as per my opponent's pace. I'm working on my strength now. I've improved a lot on my fitness. In many fast conditions I'd find the ball very difficult to control. So I went for a slightly slower racquet but one that offers better spin. That's been working well for me.
"I would say there has been some light even in a very dark year. I could learn a lot of things, spend some time with the family. The mental aspect has gotten better, the awareness of how I behave in difficult times has improved. It would definitely be helpful for athletes when we face tough times in our sport," said Sathiyan, who is India's top ranked male table tennis player.
"When I started to get used to the new normal, I started being more aware of myself, learning from seeing videos of my past matches. I've always used to think only about my opponent when I used to plan strategy for games. This year for a change I had so much time that I could see how my game was. I have never done that so closely. That helped, sitting on video calls with my coach. We made a roadmap. I've been training for the last two months."
"The last two months have been very productive as a player. We made use of the lockdown time pretty well. I'm feeling like a much improved player, or a different player after working on specific skills. Probably that would help me get into the next level: Top 20," said Sathiyan, who at that time was trying to get approval to fly out to Poland to take part in the Polish Superliga for Sokolow Sa Jaroslaw. He flew out for Poland on Wednesday where he will finally compete after nearly eight months.
" Sathiyan Gnanasekaran (@sathiyantt) October 14, 2020
"On being asked to sum up his year so far, Sathiyan chuckled. "2020 has definitely not been a great year for anyone, I suppose. Very hard, a lot of surprises," says Sathiyan.
Sathiyan was part of the men's team at the Asian Games in 2018 which beat Japan on the way to an historic bronze medal. In 2019, he got victories over then World No 5 Harimoto Tomakazo, World No 14 Wong Chun Ting, and World No 20 Chuang Chih Yuan.
2020 was supposed to be the year he broke into the next level. But it started with the dejection of the Indian men's team failing to make the Tokyo Olympics cut after losing to lower-ranked Czech Republic at the ITTF World Team Qualification Tournament in Gondomar, where Sathiyan lost to World No 45 Pavel Sirucek and World No 166 Tomas Polansky.
He then combined with Sharath Kamal to clinch silver at the Hungary Open in the men's doubles event. He was scheduled to play in the Japanese league, which is still in limbo due to the nation's strict coronavirus restrictions.
"For me, 2020 started on a bad note. We lost the Olympic qualifiers. Then we won silver. But then the entire world came to a halt and things went upside down," said Sathiyan. But as he put it, "There has definitely been some light even in a very dark year."