Sathiyan's drive to 'constantly evolve' leads to encouraging week in Austria

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran in action during the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Getty Images

Sathiyan Gnanasekaran might 'only' have reached the Round of 16, yet there were rewards, if not silverware, for him at the Austria Open on Friday. It came after a 4-1 loss in the pre-quarterfinal to Olympic champion and world No. 2 Xue Xin of China. That defeat, though, had followed three massive upsets by the World No. 35 Indian against former European champion and World No. 16 Marcos Freitas, former Asian Champion Jeong Sanguen and Wang Chuqin, who, as the current Youth Olympic gold medallist, is seen as one of the most promising talents of the new generation of the Chinese table tennis juggernaut.

It's not that Sathiyan was reaching the last 16 stage on the ITTF tour for the first time. He's won a couple of tournaments too. Yet the standard of quality at the Austria Open was unprecedented for a World Tour event. "I would say the level of the field was even tougher than at the World Championships where only two players from each country can take part. At the Austria Open I think there might have been one player in the top 60 who didn't take part," he says. Sathiyan admits to feeling the nerves when he first saw his bracket. "Each match was against an opponent who was expected to beat me. I was wondering whether I should even take the effort of going and playing," he says, only half-joking.

His run of results earned the 25-year-old praise not just from fellow Indians but also from players who had hitherto been used to considering Indian players as easy work."China's (former World championship gold medallist) Liang Jiqin came up to me and said I played very well. That was a very good feeling. When you beat a Chinese player (Chuqin in the first round) you raise a lot of eyebrows," says Sathiyan. And while fans might see results, Sathiyan knows his success comes not on resting on his laurels but continuously improving his skills and adapting on the technology of his game.

Even if he did and lost in the first round, few would have questioned his form this season. Ranked 68th in the world at the end of last year, he's currently the highest-ranked Indian at 35 and expected to improve even further. He's become only the second Indian after Achanta Sharath Kamal to compete in the German Bundesliga. Following a gold medal in the team event at the Commonwealth Games, he was part of the Indian team that won the country's first ever Asian Games medal.

Sathiyan, though, wasn't satisfied with that performance. Which is why following the Asian Games, he tweaked his tools and his skills. Competitive table tennis is an arms race of rubber and blade (the wooden bat) with players constantly trying to find the right balance that suits their game best. This wasn't the first time he's done so. "I've probably changed between eight or nine blades and between 10 or 15 rubbers ever since I started playing professionally," recalls Sathiyan. "Ever since the table tennis balls were changed last year, its become a lot harder to put spin on them. It makes the rallies a lot longer but it makes it more challenging for a player," says Sathiyan.

In the trade-off between imparting power and spin with a hard rubber and playing with the control that a softer rubber provided, Sathiyan opted for the latter. Now, though, it was time to change. "I used to use a (relatively soft) Tenergy 05 rubber on my forehand side but I changed that to a Tenergy 05 hard rubber," he says.

The transition wasn't a smooth one. In his first tournament - the Swedish Open last week - Sathiyan lost in the first round as he struggled to control the high-strung power he now had on tap.

That was when his coach Subramaniam Raman made a surprise stop in Germany to help him cope. " When you go with a sensitive hard rubber there is no room for error. We made the decision to cut down a bit on the speed and focus a little more on the control and that immediately worked," says Sathiyan.

It was in Austria that the new rubber paid off. "My opponents could see the difference and I was a lot more confident. I was a lot more aggressive and was a lot more attacking on my receive of serve. I was willing to take a lot more risks at crucial points (he won three deuce games and another three with an 11-9 score) and that was something that really paid off for me," he says.

"I was wondering whether I should even take the effort of going and playing (the Austria Open)" Sathiyan

Eventually, though, the draw caught up with him when he took on Olympic gold medallist Xu Xin in the pre-quarterfinal going 4-1. Even taking a game off the Olympic gold medalist, though, is an achievement Sathiyan is proud of. "This was the first time that I had played a top-five player. It wasn't that I had got the chance because of a draw. I had earned the right to compete on the same table as him," he says.

It is an experience he has learned from. "There is a lot of catching up that I have to do to be at his level. The quality of each ball that he hit was outstanding. It's hard not to be intimidated by the sheer quality of his game. But it's heartening that I was able to make him work for his win," says Sathiyan.

The next challenge for Sathiyan will be to make his opponents' wins even harder to come by and perhaps even get in one of his own. "There's still so much improvement to be made. I have to work on my physical strength even more and polish my backhand and perhaps even change the rubber on my backhand side. I'm not a player whose game is so strong that I don't need to touch it. In fact, I think most players should constantly evolve and introduce new skills. Eventually you want to be in a position where you aren't raising eyebrows anymore," he says.