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‘My best is yet to come — I am keen to break into the top ten’

‘My best is yet to come — I am keen to break into the top ten’

After getting to No. 7 in the world with Manika Batra in mixed doubles, G. Sathiyan wants to take his singles game to the next level. Table tennis’ big events over the next three years are in his sights

After getting to No. 7 in the world with Manika Batra in mixed doubles, G. Sathiyan wants to take his singles game to the next level. Table tennis’ big events over the next three years are in his sights

G. Sathiyan seldom shies away from acknowledging his problems as a table tennis player. The 29-year-old constantly works on his game, ruthlessly analysing it with redoubtable coach S. Raman and making corrections so that he gets better at the sport he so dearly loves.

After a forgettable Tokyo Olympics, Sathiyan bounced back admirably by winning the Czech Open and bagging two bronze medals — men’s team and doubles (with Sharath Kamal) — at the Asian championships.

Having dropped to 37 in the singles world rankings, but having improved his mixed doubles rankings with Manika Batra to a career-high World No. 7, Sathiyan is forever experimenting in a bid to improve his skill-set.

In this extensive interview, he speaks about refining his technique, training with Raman, partnering Manika and preparing for what lies ahead.

You broke into the top 25 in May 2019. You are now ranked 37. How do you view your trajectory post COVID-19?

I certainly got a lot of time to work on my game. Worked on strategies and tactics and fitness. To be in the top 40 for four years is not easy. I still have a long way to go, want to break into the top 10. I am a player who plays well with more matches. After the Tokyo Olympics I have improved. I am going in the right direction.

What specific areas did you work on during the pandemic?

I worked a lot on my serves and receives. My rally game has always been strong. We put a lot of emphasis on the backhand being aggressive. At the top level, the serve is the only thing under your control. What variations I can do on my serve, what surprise elements I can do and the deception I can work on, I practised everything. More aggressive receives are the need of the hour. The first three balls are very important: the serve, the receive and the follow-up ball. If I can do that well, I can make a difference at the top level. For that, you need fitness and the power game. We have been working on that.

In 2021-22 you played 10 tournaments, including the World and Asian championships. Your best in singles was winning the Czech Open, a feeder series, and a quarterfinal finish in a WTT Contender tournament in Tunis. You also won men’s doubles and mixed doubles titles at WTT Contender Tunis and Budapest respectively…

On the whole, the year was great. Had varied success in singles and doubles. Mixed doubles [with Manika] has been fantastic. We were also pleasantly surprised with the way we played. We are now World No. 7. It is extremely satisfying. I won the Czech Open, entered the third round of the World championships and lost some pretty close matches to top-level players. I started 2021 well by winning the Senior Nationals. Of course it was heartbreak at the Tokyo Olympics. I came back stronger in the second part of 2021. It was amazing. I played really well at the Asian championships where we won medals in the doubles and men’s team events.

How do you assess the Indian men’s and women’s teams?

In the last four years, the men’s and women’s teams have improved a lot. If you see the women, Sreeja [Akula], Archana [Kamath], Sutirtha [Mukherjee] and Ayhika [Mukherjee] have started to play really well against tough opponents. The women’s team is much stronger now. On the other hand, the men’s team has always been strong. There will be more expectations from the men’s team.

What are your thoughts on the forthcoming Commonwealth and Asian Games?

Doubles will be a crucial part of the team event at CWG. We are trying out different combinations. I played with Harmeet [Desai] and Sharath paired up with Harmeet. We have to plan in advance. India is one of the best teams. In singles, Quadri Aruna, with a world ranking of 14, will be the player to beat. There are other good players in Paul Drinkhall [WR: 59], Liam Pitchford [16]. I would love to win a medal in singles. In team events, England will be our toughest competitor. I feel India is a better side.

As far as the Asian Games is concerned, India won two bronze medals in the men’s team and mixed doubles in 2018. With a good draw we can win a medal again. And in mixed doubles, if we could repeat the medal, it would be great. In 2018 CWG, India won eight medals. If we could do that again, nothing like it. If I could add a medal each in singles and mixed doubles [with Manika], that would really be great.

What is your evaluation of your career? What do you want to do moving forward?

It has come out really well… to consistently be in the top 40 in the last four years. The next three years will be the key. There is the CWG, Asian Games and Paris Olympics. My best is yet to come. I am keen to break into the top 10 in singles in the next three years. We have already done it in mixed doubles. The major factor will be fitness and strength. To have the power game with consistency will be the focus over the next three years. We might lose matches on the way but that’s the way forward.

Also, mentally we need to work a lot. During crucial points, it is all about belief and going with your strokes. I have been working with sports psychologist Vaibhav Agashe (GoSports Foundation) for the last four years and I have progressed a lot.

How has your partnership with Manika evolved?

Our games complement each other’s. We have excellent chemistry on the table. Our speed on the court and how we understand the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses: that’s our very big plus point. Placements on court, both do it very well.

Do you think China’s dominance will continue?

Certainly, China is still the best in the world. No second thoughts about it. They have been producing top players year after year. They are ahead of the rest as of now. If you look deep, they have a few players, say three or four, at the top. The rest of them are beatable and in fact have started to lose. In men’s doubles at the last World championships, the final was played between a Swedish pair and a South Korean duo. And in the men’s singles, the finalist was a Swede, Truls Moregard. In the women’s doubles and mixed doubles, Japanese pairs made the finals. There has been a reduced dominance of China. Once we have more events, we will have a better chance to beat them. In the years to come, with more exposure, we will have a great chance to beat the top Chinese players in the world.

Coach S. Raman has been with you for 10 years. Can you describe his influence?

He constantly pushes me to improve my skills. He does detailed analysis of my game. Especially after the Olympics, what he did to my game was fantastic. After the debacle in Tokyo [second-round loss], I was under pressure. Raman worked on small details such as receives.

We had a 15-day intense camp after the Olympics as part of preparations for the Czech Open and other tournaments. To beat a very good player like Moregard [he retired midway in the semifinals] was great. I agree the Czech Open was a feeder series, and it is not a big tournament, but to have an international win is always great. And the time the win came — two weeks after the Olympics — that gave me a lot of confidence.

That’s where Raman makes a difference. He goes deeper and deeper into the game. He works day in and day out and sees lots of videos of my game. There has been a huge transformation in my game since he became the coach. He gives fool-proof solutions and that’s why stands apart as a coach. I am lucky to have him by my side both on and off court. Hopefully we will work for another 10 years!

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