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Gnanasekaran Sathiyan is conscious of what India’s badminton players have achieved and uses them as an example for where table tennis is headed. It might still be early days for that comparison, but Sathiyan is buoyed by the recent run of success that has put him at No.30 in the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) men’s world rankings.

“Like what Saina (Nehwal) did in badminton? So now anyone playing badminton believes a medal is possible. Unless someone does it, no one believes it can be done," he says.

The 26-year-old was referring to his big career win, over Japan’s 16-year-old sensation Tomokazu Harimoto (now ranked No.5) in the team quarter-final of the ITTF Asian Table Tennis Championships in September. He made it to the quarter-finals of the individual events, losing to China’s Gaoyuan Lin (now No.4), but becoming India’s star of the tournament.

The win augurs well for the player from Chennai, whose next big challenge will be the Men’s World Cup in Chengdu, China (29 November-1 December). This will be the precursor to next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo—now a compelling dream for Sathiyan.

“You have to go beyond what’s realistic. After winning at the Asian level, if you don’t believe in winning at the Olympics, then you are not being positive," he says.

The win over Harimoto, Sathiyan adds, makes him believe. “We go against the Japanese and Koreans, be it juniors or seniors, we believe we can win and they are not invincible," he says. “The benchmark has become higher—any TT player can now aim higher than just winning one tournament.

“Half the battle has been won there itself. India is not a country that others can take lightly. People will believe they can go further now that I have done it. Unless you beat them, you can’t believe they can be beaten."

Sathiyan started playing table tennis when he was 5 because his parents thought sport would keep him away from distractions like video games. He could have picked any sport, but when an academy came up close to home, he started playing. He loved it from Day 1—the speed of the game and spin of the ball fascinated him.

He then climbed the ranks of age-group table tennis, reaching the world’s top 20 in the Under-15 category by 2008 and his best ranking of 24 this July in the men’s category. Along the way came his first senior title at the World Tour Belgium Open in 2016, when he became only the second Indian player to win an event of this scale, and a gold in the ITTF Challenge Spanish Open in Almería in 2017. But success has been rather inconsistent—this, he says, shows him where he lacks.

He says the difference between the Chinese players—the top four ranked men in the world are all from China—and the rest is in skill, power and consistency.

“I touch that quality for a game or two but I can’t keep it up. They try to bring that quality through the match and do it day in and out. The Chinese are technically strong and physically solid," says the player, who, like many top sportspeople from southern India, is also an engineer by qualification.

The experience of recent tournaments has made him realize what he needs to do next—step up his 1-2-3 ball games. He is good with rallies but needs to improve his serve, receive and first ball attack. “It’s currently not enough against top-level players," he admits. “I have to go hard on the first ball and receive. You might miss a lot and look erratic, but I need to get to it. I am already in the process."

Helping him is coach S. Raman, who, Sathiyan says, has the kind of “commitment and dedication that even players don’t have". The former national champion and Olympian has been helping Sathiyan since the junior level and has taught him how to enjoy the sport. “Before any match, he sends me a plan A and plan B," adds Sathiyan. “That’s how we always plan a match and that has worked. He never shows much emotion. He likes to play it low-key."

Sathiyan is appreciative of the support he has been getting for the last five years—from the government, media and companies—but wishes it had existed a decade ago. He probably would have achieved more. “I started getting into the mainstream sport post-20. Had I got that (support) when I was 15, I would have been in the top 10 or probably won an Olympic medal.

“I was not sure then if one could make a career out of this, but I was clear about what I was doing. I could not spend a day not playing table tennis, which has made me happy."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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