India made history by entering semi-finals of the men's table tennis team event on Monday, stunning world number 3 Japan 3-1 in the quarterfinals to assure themselves of their first ever medal in the sport at the Asian Games.
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran set India on the way with a straight-games victory over world no. 28 Jin Ueda, and then Sharath Kamal beat Kenta Matsudaira (19) in straight games to put them on the brink of the semis. Japan's 57th-ranked Masaki Yoshida then beat Harmeet 9-11, 14-12, 8-11, 11-8, 11-4 to pull one point back for the Japanese. India were then helped over the line by Sathiyan, who beat Matsudaira 12-10, 6-11, 11-7, 11-4.
"It's been a great moment for us," Sathiyan told ESPN after the win. "It's yet to sink in. Just out of words. I think I would rate this as the biggest ever achievement more than the CWG gold. For us this is almost like winning an Olympic medal.
"I was moving very well today in the first match and tried not to think of the result. Sharath was of course fantastic and he has beaten Kenta twice earlier and he delivered again today. We thought we were going to win 3-0 with Harmeet up 2-1 and leading 5-3 in the third. But when I came in for the fourth singles after Harmeet's close defeat I tried to shut out everything, control my nerves and keep talking to myself. It worked wonders."
Japan, who were without three of their top singles players, including sixth-ranked Tomokazu Harimoto due to the ITTF World Tour's Czech Open taking place over the weekend, are the second most successful team in Asian Games table tennis history, having won 20 golds and 80 medals overall. They are also one of only four countries (China, South Korea and South Vietnam being the others) to have won the men's team gold in Asian Games history.
- ITTF World (@ittfworld) 27 August 2018
India had to play higher-ranked players in each match of the tie despite Japan fielding a depleted squad, with Sharath Kamal (33), Sathiyan (39) and Harmeet Desai (99) all much lower ranked than any of the Japanese competitors.
India now face South Korea in the semi-finals on Tuesday and Sathiyan is confident of a good showing. "I only realised how well I played once I saw the video footage," he says. "Beating a powerhouse like Japan and personally for me since it's my first Asian Games to win both my matches and take the team to the semifinals is a great moment. Of course South Korea whom we play tomorrow are a very strong team. I think we have a great chance to be honest. But tonight, we're going to celebrate."
On course to the knockout stages, India beat UAE and Macau easily, but lost to Chinese Taipei by a 3-2 margin on Sunday, which needed them to beat Vietnam 3-0 in their last group match to qualify for the quarters. Their win against Japan also offset the disappointment for the Commonwealth Games gold medallist women's team, who were beaten 3-1 by Hong Kong after making the quarterfinals themselves.
(With inputs from Susan Ninan)