The Indian table tennis star talks about his partnership with Achanta Sharath Kamal, his training experience in South Korea and his schedule ahead of the 2020 Olympics.
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran is relaxing in the confines of his Chennai home, where he has just returned after winning a silver medal in the men’s doubles of the Hungarian Open, alongside Indian table tennis veteran Achanta Sharath Kamal.
The duo had run through opponents in the qualifying rounds and the quarter-final before having to dig deep in the semi-final against the Hong Kong pair of Kit Ho Kwan and Ting Wong Chun, ultimately winning it in five games.
In a way, it was a sign of things to come in the final, where Achanta Sharath Kamal and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran narrowly missed out on a maiden doubles gold medal for Indian table tennis, falling to Germans Benedikt Duda and Patrick Franziska in four games.
“It did feel nice to win a World Tour medal after last having won one Spain in 2017, so it had been a while. But maybe we would have won if we had taken it to the fifth game,” Sathiyan Gnanasekaran reflected in an exclusive chat with the Olympic Channel.
Two of the three games that the Indian table tennis pair lost were by a two-point margin, indicating how closely contested it was. Sathiyan Gnanasekaran felt that their opponents were just better on the day.
“Franziska is a top 20 player and he showed it on the table that day and even Duda was in good form, he had reached the singles quarter-final as well,” he said. “We probably should have been more aggressive at times, but I think we did ultimately put up a good fight.”
For a long time, Indian table tennis was synonymous with Achanta Sharath Kamal. That perception changed last year when Sathiyan Gnanasekaran broke into the ITTF top 25 rankings and when such a duo joins hands, it is bound to work.
“I think we complement each other very well,” stated Sathiyan when quizzed about why the pairing is so good together. “He (Sharath Kamal) packs a lot of power in his shots, while I am quicker at the table and base my game on speed.”
The combination of power and guile keeps opponents guessing and explains a comfortable run to the final. “It was a good result to get the medal because it had also been a while since Sharath and I paired up,” added the Indian table tennis star.
While he enjoyed a run to the final in the doubles, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran could only make it to the pre-quarter stage in the Hungarian Open singles, as he fell in straight games to 16-year-old prodigy Tomokazu Harimoto.
The Indian table tennis ace had, in fact, defeated his Japanese opponent in straight games at the Asian Team Championships in Indonesia last year and he felt it did play a part in firing Tomokazu Harimoto up.
“He was definitely feeling down after that loss,” said Sathiyan Gnanasekaran. “The thing is, when you play the top players, you always have to hope they are not playing at an optimum level and simultaneously ensure you are operating at 100 per cent.”
“That’s what happened in Indonesia; he could not recover from the constant pressure I put on him. However, in Hungary he was playing in ‘beast mode’, he was beating everyone 4-0 and ended up winning the title as well. I stood no chance,” he stated.
In his previous chat with the Olympic Channel, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran had revealed that he would be training in South Korea in a bid to improve his game and the experience did help him finetune his game.
“You get to learn a lot when training alongside top players at the Korean national centre and my game of speed and precision during rallies is in sync with the Asian style of play,” said Sathiyan.
“I wanted to improve my serve-and-receive game, and it is something that the Asians do very well. I gained some useful insights when I practiced with players of that level and learnt to attack the first ball better.”
So does he count the serve as one of his strengths now? “I have certainly improved but one week in Korea cannot suddenly change your game,” he chuckled. “It is not yet up to the top-10 or top-20 mark but I will get there.”
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran is currently ranked 30th in the world, strong enough to get him a direct entry for India at Olympics 2020 and the Indian table tennis star felt it allowed him the luxury of choosing which events to play at.
“I will certainly play the qualifiers in order to maintain my ranking until June, which is when the Olympic Games list will be decided,” said Sathiyan. “I will play the Qatar Open but will sit out of Oman after that.”
He has set himself a target for the top-ten but that is a long-term one. Understandably, his goal this year is to ensure he is fit and running to give his best shot for India at Olympics 2020.
“In 2019, my focus was more on achieving a good ranking, so I played in a lot more tournaments and achieved it, but you cannot do it every year. And with this being an Olympic year, I do not want to wear myself out,” he concluded.