G Sathiyan: My current world ranking should ensure easy qualification for Tokyo 2020

There’s been a world of change in G. Sathiyan’s game over the years. He’s improved his service and receiving. Also worked on his physical fitness and skills. And in July he cracked the top 25 in the world.

With his current world rankings, qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics should be easy, says Sathiyan.   -  AP

Six years ago, G. Sathiyan was ranked 400 in the world in table tennis. Since then, he has worked on his physical fitness and skills, and has become a more aggressive player. And he’s cracked the top 25 recently, ranking 24th in July.

The 26-year-old from Chennai has had a good year, finishing sixth at the Asia Cup and qualifying for the World Cup, and also doing well at the Halmstad world championships, reaching the round of 32. Now he’s thinking of a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Impossible, one might say!

Sathiyan shoots back: “That’s what people said when I mentioned a few years back that my aim was to reach the top 50 in the world, and that’s what people said when I had said an Asian Games medal was a possibility.”

India won the bronze in the men’s team event in Indonesia last year.

In an interview, Sathiyan and his coach and mentor S. Raman speak on a host of issues including the processes he has set in motion to make it to the top 10 and why skills are paramount in table tennis.

What does it take to be in the top 25 in the world?

Sathiyan: World Rankings (WR) have been just the result of the process that we have gone through. I’ve always worked on a lot of processes. (It’s) what I should be improving in the next three-six months. WR was just a result of that. A lot of changes have happened in my game. I was ranked 400 six years back, and now I am at 24, which is a huge jump. I worked on my physical fitness and more on the skills part where I became very aggressive. That really shook the opponents because earlier I was a controlled and defensive player. Being an aggressive player changed the perspective.

Raman: When I took charge as coach, we decided to up the ante on the physical and fitness side. He always had the advantage of competing fearlessly, not shying away from challenges. He has always been aggressive. It is a wonderful way to project your character to the sport. It means that you are really intense and that you want to give your best shot each time you enter the court.

When he takes on legendary players such as Ma Long or Fan Zhendong, he shows his aggression, he is not merely present on the court. He goes out there to show his aggression.

When he took charge as coach, he and Sathiyan decided to up the ante on the physical and fitness side, S. Raman says, adding, Sathiyan always had the advantage of competing fearlessly, not shying away from challenges.   -  S. R. Raghunathan

 

In technique, what changes did you introduce in Sathiyan’s game?

Raman: I would say major changes. There has been a world of change. The basic strokes remain the same. Earlier he would never get a service point. We decided that service is a big component to develop. I told him to develop his service. We worked on a variety of spin services, following it up with a different type of routine. His receiving was pretty ordinary and that’s where the game begins. If you take the top-15 players, they are very strong in service and receiving. We have worked enormously on these aspects. The game begins there. At the top there is no mercy.

He’s not muscular. Is that a drawback?

Raman: A little bit. But I have never heard of somebody hitting a top-25 ranking and not having an injury. I appreciate the team for that. A special thanks to Quantum Leap Performance’s Ramji Srinivasan, a former India cricket fitness trainer. [Ramji Srinivasan is also a columnist for Sportstar.]

You’ve had a good 2019 where you upset higher-ranked players in the Asia Cup to finish sixth and qualify for the World Cup, and you also did well at the Halmstad world championships, reaching the round of 32...

Sathiyan: This year will be crucial. I defeated two higher-ranked players in Chih-Yuan Chuang and Wong Chun Ting in the Asian Cup in April. That was fantastic and it gave me confidence of beating top 10 (players). Wins like these give you the motivation to work on your game further.

Brazil’s Hugo Calderano, ranked No. 6 in the world, overpowered you at the world championships in Halmstad this year. There appears a huge gap between you and the top 10...

Sathiyan: It was the same case earlier when I played against top-50 players a couple of years back. That is where we need to grow.

I am up for the challenge, there are players like Koki (Niwa), (Tomakazo) Harimoto who are not very muscular. Having muscles is one of the factors, not the only one. Skill is paramount.

Raman: There is a research paper that said that table tennis is played 50 percent on dexterity and only five percent on power. We want players who are dexterous, able to adapt to different ball patterns and spins in a short time. There are a lot of algorithms (in the game). You have to figure out a lot of things in quick time. It is a misnomer that muscles are predominant for the sport.

Sathiyan: My WR is a testimony. You need basic fitness, you need endurance. I think physical fitness is not the only thing which takes you to the top. But skills are a major part. That makes you stay at the top.

Up close and personal with Sathiyan

Hobbies: I love sport biographies, action movies. I love hanging out with my friends. I liked the sports movie Dangal and am a big fan of Aamir Khan. I also watch superhero moves like Batman. Mostly I am at the Raman High Performance Centre (Chetpet, Chennai). On Sundays I spend time with my family.

Other sports interests: In school, I played basketball and even now I watch a lot of tennis.

Favourite sportsperson: I am huge fan of Roger Federer. He is undoubtedly the GOAT. His effortless style and getting maximum output from minimum input is something astonishing. He has inspired me.

Do you have a team working with you?

Sathiyan: Raman Sir always says a coach is on the table, but every expert should do his job. GoSports Foundation is helping me in getting a mental-conditioning coach, a dietician, a physio and a fitness trainer.

In 2018, a new ranking system was introduced. How has it been for you?

Sathiyan: It is very demanding. It is pushing you to the limits of physicality. There are 12-15 tournaments a year wherein the best eight are taken. But I will still say that this is a very good system. You have to be at the top always, perform every year and keep defending points every month. The old system was static, a very protective system.

Raman: The new ranking system gives more chances to growing players.

Sathiyan: Chinese supremacy is slowly coming down. As you can see, Mattias Falck of Sweden reached the world championships final this year. There will be more players beating the Chinese players. In the new system, you have to perform throughout the year, maintain your rankings every month.

Is the sport rewarding enough?

Sathiyan: Financially, far less than tennis. Motivation is the only tricolour. To have the Olympic dream, that’s what drives us. WR is the sole criterion. Definitely, the International Table Tennis Federation is improving, but it has a very long way to go.

The calendar is packed with numerous pro tours. How are you going to manage them with your domestic commitments?

Sathiyan: There is no off-season in table tennis. We have been playing 365 days a year. Pro-tours, Ultimate TT league, Commonwealth and Asian Championships and official domestic tournaments. We’ve already spoken to the Table Tennis Federation of India and the Sports Authority of India. The TTFI has not been able to find dates for a national-ranking calendar which will not clash with a pro-tour event.

Raman: The TTFI has understood the new ranking system. These players are the flag-bearers of India. They have to play pro tours. The (TTFI) has realised the dynamics of the game have changed from 2018.

You hated engineering at one point. Was it difficult balancing academics and all the training?

Sathiyan: It was the most difficult phase of my life, balancing both. I realised that balancing does not take your career to any great heights. I was good in academics and they thought I can balance both. Excelling in both? You have to talk at which level. If it is at the Olympic level, it is just not possible. I would suggest that with the infrastructure, government support, there is better scope for sports than engineering.

Raman: Today he has achieved more than I have achieved. I couldn’t give a guarantee to his parents when they asked me whether Sathiyan would do well. Now I am proud as a coach.

For a sport like table tennis, which requires quick thinking, body-mind coordination becomes tough. What does it take to master it?

Raman: Table tennis is like playing bridge and the 100m sprint at the same time — that was a case study done recently. To add to that, I would say it is like solving a very complex algorithm in one minute because of the type of spin, the type of angle and that too playing with a 40mm ball on a table measuring 9ft by 5ft. With the spin combination, it is one of the most difficult sports.

Sathiyan has fast-twitch muscle fibre. At the same time, he needs to be a fast and sharp thinker. That’s where my forte comes into the picture, to be able to know why he is doing what he is doing. I break all the complexities and explain in detail what he is doing, that’s been my strength.

Satihyan says both he and A. Sharath Kamal are doing well, and that the third player in the squad has to play an important role in Olympic qualification.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

 

How is the path to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics looking?

Sathiyan: With my current world rankings, qualifying (for Tokyo) should be easy. It should be a done thing. We are looking at winning a medal. It is a tough task. But past performances have given us confidence — the Asian Games medal, me finishing sixth in the Asia Cup and a good performance in the world championships in Halmstad.

The qualifying process begins in January 2020 where the top 16 countries will make it. We will have to do well to qualify as a team. If we don’t, we have to do it in singles through the world rankings.

The third player in the Indian team is a problem (Harmeet Desai is ranked outside the top 100, currently at 120). Will that be a factor in the team making it to the Olympics?

Sathiyan: Definitely, we both (he and A. Sharath Kamal) are doing well. The third player is going to play an important role in our qualification. All the three players have to be strong. Even the bench strength is strong in other countries. But we are up for it.

What learning does an Indian coach require to handle a top player like Sathiyan?

Raman: I’ve always believed that IQ is important for every field. I continue to learn. I quit my profession from my oil company to produce champions. As much as a player, a coach has to be a good learner. When I went to the world championships in Halmstad this year along with Sathiyan, I observed other players. Being a full-time professional coach, I put in 10 hours of work every day, making programmes for elite athletes. There is so much talent in India.

How much does racquet rubber play a part in a player’s growth?

Sathiyan: Hardly 1-2 percent. Equipment at best is a supporting tool. You have to be good in technique, fitness and footwork. That’s the key.