V Chandrasekhar: Crowd favourite, coach for the ages, fighter to the finish

File photo of V Chandrsekhar at the Mumbai Press Club in 2007 Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

As a five-year-old, G Sathiyan used to tag along with his mother and older sister to a large room inside the DG Vaishnav College premises, filled with sounds of balls smacking particle boards. It was then that a gentleman with kind eyes and halting speech handed the young boy a paddle and asked him to take a shot. For the next 14 years, Sathiyan kept going back a few times every week. He is now little over ten weeks away from a maiden Olympic appearance. On Wednesday, the gentleman who handed him a TT paddle for the first time, V Chandrasekhar, or Chandra, as he's fondly known, a three-time national champion and coach cutting across generations, died following COVID-19 complications. He was 64.

"During our last couple of conversations Chandra sir would tell me how eagerly he's waiting to watch my Olympic matches on TV," says Sathiyan. "Right from when I was a young boy, he taught me how to think during a match, how to analyse my opponents. Training under him was like this constant stream of mini-lessons on tactics and mental strength. That kind of knowledge always made me feel like I was a step ahead of my peers when competing in junior tournaments. Even today before matches, I sometimes go back to bits of his advice. It's hard to believe he's no more."

Chandrasekhar's life was a montage of grit through extraordinary struggles. Ruling the Indian table tennis scene through the '70s and early '80s, he captained India at the Asian Championship and the Commonwealth Championship. He had training stints in Seoul and Japan, honing the third-ball attack and swing toss. In Japan, he trained at the facility run by former world champion Ichiro Ogimura. At his best, he was a star, capable of filling stadiums to the rafters and having crowds -- especially in Madras -- chanting his name during matches, but he was shortchanged by fate.

At the peak of his career, a minor knee surgery gone grievously wrong left the three-time national champion in a vegetative state at the age of 25. He suffered severe neurological damage and could barely move, talk or see. The Table Tennis Federation of India put out ads in newspapers seeking donations from fans and well-wishers for his further treatment overseas. It was reported that cricketers Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri were among top Indian sportspersons who chipped in with contributions. Chandrasekhar went on to take the super-specialty private hospital that botched up his surgery, to court, and following a protracted legal battle that lasted a decade, won the case and claimed damages.

Despite further medical procedures, Chandrasekhar's vision and mobility remained limited and speech slurred. It still wasn't enough to dim his love for the sport. He hated missing a daily trip to his academy and though the pandemic had thinned trainee attendance to a bare minimum, he'd be ever-present in his tucked-in formals and ready quips.

"The way he handled his life's challenges taught me so much," adds Sathiyan. "He couldn't walk around much but sometimes he'd come up to the table and serve. Even so many years after his playing career and despite his physical limitations, it was like a rocket blasting off into space, full of power. The best serve I'd ever seen."

Early on, well-meaning seniors and peers in the sport would routinely coax Sathiyan to switch to a power-driven style of play. He was told that the 'peculiar' spin-oriented, slightly passive kind of game he carried, hinging more on placement than attack, had no future. "Chandra sir was the only one who backed me then and said I shouldn't tamper with what was a natural gift. It doesn't need fixing, he would tell me, it needs improvisation. Following that advice has done me good."

Chandrasekhar also coached Sathiyan's present coach S Raman and other top Indian names such as Chetan Baboor. He also mentored Priyesh Suresh Raj, a promising cadet from Tamil Nadu in the current Indian junior players' pool.

"When I joined his academy, it was among the best in the country," Sathiyan says. "In our green T-shirts we'd win most events in state ranking tournaments. I remember I was crushed after losing the Cadet Nationals at 11. He came up to me and said, 'why are you worrying, my boy? You'll be the senior national champion one day.' When I won the Nationals this year, he was the first to call and congratulate me. I sometimes wonder how much more he could have accomplished with a longer playing and coaching career without the health issues."

Among Chandrasekhar's fiercest rivals was Kamlesh Mehta, three years younger to him. Mehta played his first international tournament -- the 1980 Asian Championships in Calcutta -- under Chandrasekhar's captaincy, lost his first national final against him and beat him in the following year's final, in 1982.

"The crowds rooted for Chandra," says Mehta. "He was an attractive guy to watch at the table, a flamboyant attacker. Even I'd be spellbound at times. Off the table we were buddies and he could always make people laugh. He never gave up when he was trailing in matches. He would play risky shots and pull off a win even from the most unlikely situations. Even after his career abruptly ended, he battled his limitations. He was a fighter to the finish."

Three years ago, Kamlesh's firm 11Sports began supporting Chandrasekhar's academy and the two have since been in regular touch. "We spoke when he was being taken to the hospital. He only had a mild fever and would be okay soon, he told me. Even in that condition, he was full of ideas on what more he could do around his academy. I asked him to rest and promised we'd speak once he felt better. I had no idea that day wouldn't come."