September 27, 2016 2:10:40 am
The aim was to just get into the next round, not win the title. “It’s all an underdog can do,” says G Sathiyan. For years, the 23-year-old table tennis player has been entering international tournaments with that same goal, hoping to win a few ranking points. Sathiyan entered the World Tour Belgium Open with his usual modest hopes but something unusual happened — he didn’t stop winning. “All of a sudden, I was playing the final, and then winning the final. I have no clue how that happened,” he says.
Ranked 152 in the world, the Chennai-lad upset world number 113 — local favourite Cedric Nuytinck — to win the title at De Haan, Belgium, and become only the second Indian to win a Pro Tour event, after Sharath Kamal won the Egypt Open in 2010. En route to the final though, he had to overcome 103rd ranked Swede Jon Persson, Harald Andersson (156) and Germany’s world number 75 Steffen Mengel. Yet more than just rating, his career’s ‘biggest win’ as merely a one-off underdog achievement, he views it as a sign that he has finally arrived on the table tennis circuit. Especially since an engineering degree rendered him to fall behind his peers.
The first glimmer of Sathiyan’s potential was noticed a year after Kamal won in Egypt. The year was 2011 and that’s when he won a bronze at the team event of the World Junior Championships. The achievement, nonetheless, was followed by the unexpected decision to take up an engineering degree.
“My parents wanted me to study because they couldn’t see a future for me in TT. With a degree, I’d have some stability if I fail at the sport, they’d tell me. This meant I lost a lot of ground,” he says, adding the reason he pursued academics was because he was good at it. While his first two years went by with little to no practice time, he sought the tutelage of four-time national champion S. Raman in 2013. The first step was to plan a schedule that would accommodate his academic work and sporting endeavours. “There wasn’t much time to travel home, change and come back for practice. So I’d have one big bag with me. I’d carry my TT bat to class, and my books to practice,” he says.
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Tournaments meanwhile weren’t very easy to deal with, especially since he had the worries of upcoming examinations or pending project work. “I had exams coming up, and I had booked my return flight a bit close to the match time. So during the match all I could think of is if I would reach the airport on time,” he recalls. “It was painfully distracting.”
By the time he had reached his last year of college, while his classmates were preparing for the GRE examinations, the St. Joseph’s Engineering College student decided to increase his own focus on the game. Subsequently, he competed in his first competition a month after graduating, beating old friend and rival Soumyajit Ghosh for the All-India inter-institutional ranking tournament.
“I realised at that point that I had made up some ground for the time I missed, but there was still more to get through,” he says. A year later, he would win the mixed double gold medal with Ankita Das at the Commonwealth TT Championships in Surat.
In a competitive career that started when he was seven, then competing at the U-10 state level, Sathiyan was introduced to the game as a five-year-old. At that point, his father, who worked for BSNL had to travel to Zimbabwe on a work trip, leaving his banker mother alone to care for him and his two elder sisters. “We’d sit and watch TV all day, so my mother wanted us to get out of the house and do something. As luck would have it, a TT academy had just opened up next door,” he recalls.
Sathiyan now trains in Grunwettersbach, Germany, a village situated an hour away from Frankfurt. He moved to Europe in September, after he had secured a contract to play with third division TT club TSG Kaiserslautern. He has moved up the ranks significantly since leaving college, progressing from the 400’s to 152 rank he sits on. The win in Belgium will only increase it further. Among the Indian TT circles though, he does carry bragging rights about being the strongest academic – given his engineering degree. He also gets taunted for it, particularly by Ghosh. “If I don’t know the answer, he says ‘tu toh engineer hai. Tujhe pata hona chahiye,’” he says. “But now I have a comeback. I’ll say you’ve been playing TT throughout. But I’ve won the pro tour,” he concludes.
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