G Sathiyan’s Sporting Hero: Of Federer's grace and Timo Boll's skills

A conversation with table tennis legend Timo Boll during his early years gave Sathiyan Gnanasekaran the confidence boost he needed in his career.

By Rahul Venkat ·

There is a natural charm around left-handed athletes.

With the world of professional sport being dominated by right-handers, the rarity of southpaws make them crowd pullers.

For Indian table tennis player Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, that moment occurred when watching legendary German Timo Boll in action.

“Timo Boll was definitely one of my heroes growing up,” Sathiyan Gnanasekaran told the Olympic Channel.

“I think anyone who has watched table tennis loves to see Boll play. He is a legend of the game.”

Playing Timo Boll

A three-time Olympic medallist and former world No. 1, Timo Boll was destined for greatness ever since he beat world champion Wang Liqin and Olympic champion Kong Linghui at the 2002 table tennis World Cup.

Timo Boll has also enjoyed a long career at the top. He was ranked world No.1 in two different decades and at different stages in his career. Sathiyan Gnanasekaran was 'blessed' to play against his hero at the 2019 men’s World Cup.

“I had first seen him play on TV at the Qatar Open in 2006, so I had been watching him for a while. Playing against him later was a big fan moment for me!” exclaimed Sathiyan.

The Indian table tennis player actually managed to win the first game in their opening round clash, but eventually lost 11-7, 8-11, 5-11, 9-11, 8-11. Their first interaction, however, had come a couple of years before that.

“I remember we were practising in the same hall in late 2016. I was still an upcoming player, probably ranked 120 or so then, but Boll noticed me play and came up to have a chat,” reminisced Sathiyan.

“He was impressed with my speed and reflexes and told me I had a great future ahead of me. I told him my aim then was to break into the top-100, but he assured me that I had the talent to do much more and asked me to keep working hard and to keep fit. We even had a proper practice session together after that.”

The conversation left a lasting impression on Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and boosted his confidence.

“The incident just showed how nice he is, he did not look at the stature of players or how famous they were. I was not even a top player then, yet he approached me and the way he spoke to me was a nice gesture,” added Sathiyan.

“I think he sets a proper example of how to remain grounded despite all the success.”

The similarities between Boll and Federer

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran is also a big Roger Federer fan.

The tennis legend is considered one of the most graceful players to ever play the game, with his silky forehands and one-handed backhands making for a delightful watch.

“The ease with which Roger Federer plays - the smooth strokes and the impeccable ball control - is great to watch. It looks effortless but obviously takes a lot of effort to get your body moving in that rhythm,” stated Sathiyan.

According to the Indian table tennis player, Timo Boll shares a lot of those qualities.

Boll is renowned for his ability to generate a lot of spin, on both his forehand and backhand shots. Combined with the natural left-armer’s angle and his innovative technique of putting spin on his defensive blocks – made possible by his supple wrists and low stance – make Timo Boll one of the best players in the world.

“I’m very inspired by players like Boll and Federer, who make the game look smooth whenever they play. I actually learnt the importance of footwork from Boll,” explained Sathiyan.

“It feels like he takes short steps when playing but his footwork is amazing. People think table tennis is all about the hands, but the legs are an equally important factor.”

Timo Boll is renowned for his ability to generate a lot of spin on his shots.

One other trait that Timo Boll shares with Roger Federer is the calm persona.

“I do not think I have ever seen Boll tense during a match. He is just so calm under pressure. The way he carries himself off the court is also very impressive,” noted the Indian table tennis player.

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran will now have to put all those lessons and inspirations to good use in the next few months as he prepares to make one final push to play at the Tokyo Olympics.