In April, paddler Gnanasekaran Sathiyan returned to India after his stint in the table tennis league, the Polish Superliga, where he won nine matches and helped his team, Jaroslaw, win the bronze medal. His attention then turned to the Tokyo Olympics. He considered a few options of training abroad, alongside some top players, but those didn’t work out due to covid-19 travel restrictions. Neither were there any tournaments to play for the necessary match practice.
Under the circumstances, Sathiyan, 28, reflected on the things that had worked for him in the past. He realised that training in Chennai had helped him perform well at many tournaments over the last two years. So when he returned from Poland, Sathiyan decided to make his home his base, and created an entire training ecosystem to help him prepare for his Olympic debut.
“Everything was so uncertain, so Chennai was the best place for me to train with my kind of people and home comforts, including food that suits me. It has always been a good environment for me to work in. I performed really well at the World Cup and Olympic qualifiers, both tournaments that I went to directly from Chennai. So I think I’ll be holding on to that this time around as well,” Sathiyan says.
During the lockdown last year, he had transformed the rooftop of his house into his training hub. He would fix a camera in that space each morning and go through his fitness sessions under the online supervision of trainer, Ramji Srinivasan. The schedule was planned utilising household objects such as chairs, water bottles and school bags, a unique experience for Sathiyan. “I had never done such workouts before, really fun and interesting. It helped me maintain fitness and improve on certain areas such as strength,” he says.
Sathiyan has better facilities these days. He now has a mini gym and a table to practice on, and spends close to six hours each day at coach Subramaniam Raman’s centre nearby. Sathiyan also reached out to fellow table tennis player, Anirban Ghosh, who had been his sparring partner before the Nationals and the Olympic qualifiers. It was an arrangement that had worked, and in the run-up to the Olympics, Sathiyan decided to continue training with Ghosh.
“I needed a player who could challenge me in a lot of areas. I’ve played Anirban a lot at the Nationals - a really nice guy, which is the most important thing. He is hardworking and has a lot of energy and potential. I like his game style, a mix of attack and defence, and very consistent. And it’s really helped my game,” says Sathiyan.
Over the last few months, Sathiyan has been working on his strokes and on serving and receiving. While speed and agility has been his forte, the focus now, under Raman’s watchful eye, is on power hitting. Since he started working with Raman in October 2012, Sathiyan’s biggest learning has been to take calculated risks to finish off points, instead of maintaining consistency and getting drawn into long rallies.
“I used to laugh when I was ranked No. 450 in the world and Raman sir told me about targeting the top-50. It’s fantastic how he had the vision and realised what aspects of my game needed work, the amazing level of detailing that he goes into. Now when he talks about the top-10, I don’t laugh anymore,” says Sathiyan, who is currently ranked No. 38 in the world and six behind compatriot, Sharath Kamal Achanta.
When not training on the table, physical conditioning sessions focus on improving Sathiyan’s explosive power, besides working on balance and stability. He’s also been practicing visualisation techniques with mental conditioning coach, Vaibhav Agashe, to keep calm and remain focussed during crunch moments.
“Raman sir has been to the Olympics and knows what it’s like to play on the big stage. He insists on bringing in that X-factor, a surprise element, especially in the important matches. He’s readied me for other things that I can expect as well such as sleep disturbance, so I’ve been gearing up mentally for these things,” Sathiyan says. “Of course, there are a lot of nerves, but some are definitely good. I felt it during the Asian Games and it brought out my best game. So it’s good to have some kind of pressure. I’ve been telling myself to treat it like another tournament, just another game of table tennis,” he adds.
An integral member of Sathiyan’s team is his mother, Malarkodi, who tends to every aspect of his nutrition—from supplements to comfort food that suits his palate and fulfils his dietary needs as well. And on Sundays, Sathiyan’s day off, the two movie buffs can usually be found watching new releases to relax. “Being at home, there is always a positive vibe and it’s really important when I get back from training. We chat about everything from sports to politics and cinema. It eases out the stress and pressure from training. My mother being around all the time is a huge advantage,” says Sathiyan.
A stint last year with the T-League in Japan gave Sathiyan invaluable experience, what he considers to be a vital part of his pre-Olympic preparations. He had the opportunity to spar with good players, most of whom were also ranked higher than him. “I got into the whole Olympic mood—flying to Tokyo, experiencing the environment and atmosphere, and playing in a big stadium without spectators. I’ll miss the crowd since they have a major role to play and really push you when you’re down. I’ve always loved playing in front of Japanese spectators,” Sathiyan says.
“But this is how it’s going to be, so you need to be focussed and prepare for this new atmosphere. I’ve played in Japan, Qatar and Poland where there were no crowds, so I think I’ve settled in now,” he adds.
While his teammates have been busy at camp in Haryana, Sathiyan has made the most of his familiar surroundings to step outside his comfort zone. He says that it has taken steady work and patience to finally be ready for the Olympics. “I’ve taken on a very serious grind over the last five years to get here. But it’s all been worth it and I’m really excited to see how things unfold.”
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.