“Table tennis is becoming a major professional sport”

Table tennis player Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, ranked 44th in the TT world rankings, talks to Nibedita Saha about his preparations for the Asian Games and the sport’s growing popularity in India.

Q. Table tennis has received a lot of attention in recent years in India. What are the factors that make it popular?

A. Definitely, the performance of Indian players on the world stage and the record eight medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games had a huge impact. The advent of CEAT UTT [Ultimate Table Tennis, a national TT tournament] and increased support from the government and the Indian Table Tennis Federation has also helped the sport gain popularity in recent years.

Q. You are number 44 in the ITTF International Table Tennis Rankings. How many challenges did you have to overcome to get into this position?

A. To get to this position, I worked a lot on my skills, emphasizing every little detail with my coach S. Raman. I started to play more aggressively, taking calculated risks. Exposure to CEAT UTT, playing with world class players, as well as more exposure to ITTF Pro Tour events helped me improve faster. I also worked a lot on my physical and mental condition to face the best in the world.

Q. Most of our players prefer to train abroad. Is it because we don’t have adequate sports infrastructure in place in India?

A. I am a successful player playing in Chennai so far, with my coach Raman Sir most of the time. We have a system in place with proper planning and a roadmap. With the enormous support of the government and the GoSports Foundation, we have managed to put together a good team consisting of a physical trainer, a physio, a mental conditioning coach and a dietitian. When you have a good trainer with the right knowledge, financial backing, and a supportive team, it is certainly possible to reach the top even by training in India.

I have been to foreign countries only for short stays in order to get used to the conditions in a foreign country and get a different exposure. I think it would be great if we could bring foreign training partners to India so that our players have quality training sessions. A lot of Indian players go overseas because this whole support system is already in place there, under one roof. Although the infrastructure in India has improved a lot in recent years, there is still a long way to go.

Q. Most of our league tournaments, for example cricket or football, are considered to be commercial enterprises. Would you say CEAT UTT is trying to break this pattern? How has UTT contributed to the development of table tennis in India?

A. CEAT UTT has definitely been a great platform for all Indian TT players. You can see the performance of Indian players on the world stage. Personally, for me, I was world number 120 last year, and now I’m number 44. Beating the top CEAT UTT players last year gave me the confidence to perform better in world circuit events. . Table tennis is not the main sport in India and does not have a lot of money. CEAT UTT was therefore an excellent initiative in this direction.

Q. At the Commonwealth Games earlier this year you won a team gold, a silver in the men’s doubles and a bronze in the mixed doubles, but you weren’t able to clinch any medals in the singles. So where do you think you have failed? And how do you approach these issues in your preparations for the Asian Games?

A. It was my first CWG and I played pretty well; in fact, above my expectations. It would have been great to win a medal in singles too, but I have to give it to Sam Walker from England who I lost to in the quarterfinals because he was just too good that day.

I was happy with the way I played and did my best, but sometimes the opponent is just too good on a given day.

I’m on the right track as I had some big wins in my first CWG and hope to win medals in all events at the next CWG. The Asian Games will be quite difficult, but I hope to be able to improve my services and my receptions to be even more efficient.

Q. Has table tennis in India evolved as a sport since the beginning of your career? And who was your idol when you started playing TT?

A. Jan ove Waldner from Sweden was my idol when I started playing TT, although I love to see Timo Boll from Germany playing these days.

The game has evolved a lot indeed, it has become much faster, there are more rallies and there are also a lot of players now with new and different techniques and styles of play. There has been a huge change with the equipment and the balls too. In India, I think TT is now in the process of being transformed from a simple recreational sport to a major professional sport.

Q. Do you think that promoting table tennis in Indian schools would help the game nationally?

A. Yes, certainly, anyone caught young will help.

Q. You signed with Bundesliga Premier League club ASV Grunwettersbach Tischtennis. How are you preparing for this alongside the preparations for the Asian Games?

A. I’m really excited for the German Bundesliga because it’s a great platform. I will be playing against world class players, which will help me improve my skills and perform better on the world stage.

The preparations are going pretty well, as I am working on specific skills with my trainer Raman Sir. I’m also competing in the Korean Open and the Australian Open in July, which will be good preparation for the Asian Games. At the same time, I will do some training in Hong Kong and China before the Asian Games, because playing the best Asians will help me perform better.

Q. What do you think of India’s chances at the Asian Games?

A. The Asian Games will be quite difficult because the superpowers and the best countries in the world will participate. But with our current form and our confidence after the CWG, with a good draw, it is certainly possible to win a medal in a team event.

Q. What steps can be taken to make table tennis a mainstream game in India, so that more people have the opportunity to become professionally involved in the sport?

A. I think TT is growing as a professional sport, and there are a lot of job opportunities in this sport as well. School-level competitions and programs and leagues like CEAT UTT help the sport earn more eyeballs. If more people get into the sport, it will definitely help integrate TT more.

Sara R. Cicero