The sprightly Sathiyan Gnanasekaran came of age to take over the leadership mantle in Indian table tennis from veteran A Sharath Kamal in a year which saw paddlers produce memorable performances despite the lack of a full-time coach.
For a decade and a half, Sharath was India’s lone warrior on the big stage but now he too is relieved that he has got a fast-improving Sathiyan for company.
“It’s time (we had someone else taking over the leadership responsibility). Sathiyan is improving rapidly in the international arena and I am really happy for him,” said the 37-year-old Sharath, arguably the finest table tennis player India has produced.
If 2018 was about India doing exceedingly well at the Commonwealth and Asian Games, 2019 was mainly about Sathiyan making his mark at the highest level where he defeated quite a few top-20 players, including world number five and young Japanese teenage sensation Harimoto Tomokazu.
The 26-year-old also became the first Indian to break into the top-25 of the ITTF world rankings when he rose to 24 in July. Another feather in his cap was finishing sixth in his first ever Asian Cup which helped him qualify for the World Cup where he made the main draw after topping his group.
“It has been a satisfying year. I beat quite a few higher-ranked players and target for next year is to register more wins against the top-10 players. We are also doing well as a team and that gives us confidence going into the Olympics qualifiers,” Sathiyan told PTI.
Indian paddlers have now become a force to reckon with and they were without a full-time coach in the journey this year. The individual brilliance aside, they also make for a potent men’s team.
After winning a historic bronze at the Asian Games last year, the squad comprising Sharath (WR 34), Sathiyan (30) and reigning Commonwealth champion Harmeet Desai (85) has a very good chance of achieving another first when it plays the Olympic team qualifiers in Portugal beginning January 22.
Currently ranked 8th, all India needs to do is to reach the quarterfinals to ensure a first ever Olympic qualification as a team. So far, Indian players have only featured in individual events at the Olympics.
“The good thing is that all of us are in good shape and all we need to do is play as per our ranking. If we do that, we qualify for the Olympics as a team for the very first time,” said Sharath, who managed his workload by playing seven ITTF World Tour events this year.
The much younger Sathiyan played in 11 World Tour events where he got the better of many established names in the business.
The squad, which is without a coach for the past 16 months, is assembling in Chennai later this week to prepare for the all-important Olympic qualification event. Since no national camps have taken place due to the absence of a coach, players have been training on their own.
“Ahead of an important team event, we must train together. We are playing well individually but lack of a full-time coach is taking a toll on all of us including the federation which is trying its best to find a good coach,” said Sharath, who has an added responsibility of mentoring the unit.
The women’s team may not be as strong as the men’s team but expectations have been high from Manika Batra ever since she bagged four medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The world number 61 could not build up on that exceptional showing in 2019 and slipped in the rankings.
Off the court, the 24-year-old from Delhi had a lot going on as she split with her childhood coach Sandeep Gupta citing stagnancy in her game.
Having moved her training base to Pune from Delhi, Manika is aiming to break back into the top-50.