'Motivated' India exorcise Glasgow ghosts in TT

In one of the happiest moments of his life, it seems a bit unkind to remind G Sathiyan about one of his lowest.

Sathiyan, who won the men's table tennis team gold at the Commonwealth Games, remembers the moment India finished without a medal four years ago in Glasgow. He had narrowly missed out on making the team, having just written his engineering college exams, but had watched the debacle on TV.

"We lost in the bronze medal playoffs then. The team was so disappointed. Even though I was not there, I was disappointed. It wasn't just a loss for the team, it was a loss for the country," he recalls before brightening up. "That was us four years ago. We won one medal in five events. Now see where we are. We have two golds from two events."

If India's gold medal in the women's team event on Sunday was a historic first, the men's achievement was all about redemption. Unlike the women's team, the men had won a medal at every team event at every Games (winning gold in 2006) until 2014. "Since the men came back empty handed in 2014, it's good that they are back now," says former Olympian Neha Aggarwal to ESPN.

Neha doesn't think the result was as much a surprise as it might have seemed to casual fans of the sport. With a world ranking of 15, India were top seeds and led by Sathiyan, they had a total of six players ranked in the top 100. Their semi-final opponents Singapore by contrast only had one. England, beaten in semifinals of the other half of the draw had just three. Finalists Nigeria also had just a single player - World No. 26 Aruna Quadri -- in the top hundred and he only landed In Australia on the morning of the final.

The Indian team and players had quietly been racking up victories over the past couple of years -most notably advancing out of the first division of the Asian Championships in 2017 and qualifying for the elite division of the Table Tennis World Team Championships in 2016.

There has been no single silver bullet behind the team's improvement. "There's been a slow change in thinking. The players have been planning their own program well. Sathiyan has been on the rise and Sharath has been stable," Neha says.

The 24-year-old Sathiyan's rise has indeed been meteoric. Ranked outside the top 400 at the time of the previous Commonwealth Games, he was the second-highest ranked player in the tournament in Gold Coast. Yes, the fact that that he had received his BTech helped him devote more time to training, but so did a new training regimen under coach and former Olympian S Raman.

"I was constantly being pushed. Once I cleared the top 200, the next goal was to rise even higher. After cracking the top 100, it was to get to the top 50," he says.

Several things were needed for that to happen, including an exposure to more international tournaments.

"Last year, I played 12 tournaments on the world and challenge tour. The more I played the better my rankings improved," Sathiyan says. Sponsorship by the GoSports foundation helped too. "It wasn't just a case of money. I was able to get support for my recovery and rehabilitation too."

He also headed for training stints abroad. While government funding helped, Sathiyan often paid his own way. He wasn't the only player to be doing so either. Every member of the team trains and plays club competition abroad - Sharath in Germany, Harmeet Desai in Poland , Amalaraj and Sanil Shetty in Spain. "Playing club level matches in Europe against high quality opponents helped us deal with pressure," says Sanil, another member of the squad.

The UTT league - the first pro league -- helped too.

"Getting the chance to play against some of the best players was great. We stayed with them and learned from them and even beat them. It gave us the confidence that we can make it to the top," says Sathiyan, who remained unbeaten in the tournament and even picked up a win against the World No.8 Chun Ting of Hong Kong.

The team benefited from his rise in the rankings. "As our rankings improved, we got better draws in the team events. And we could go further because of that," says former player Kamlesh Mehta.

While the team improved as individual players, they still needed someone to put them together as a collective whole. That would be done with the return of Massimo Constantini as chief coach. The genial Italian had been in charge when the squad had won a record five medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games but had left soon after to work with the American squad. Brought back not long after a disappointing run at the Rio Games, Constantini has found the winning touch once again.

"He has been able to get the team working together. The doubles pair of Harmeet Desai and Sathiyan (who completed the 3-0 win against Nigeria) were a scratch pair. But they worked so seamlessly together," says Mehta.

This isn't to say that the preparation to the tournament was seamless. Just a few days before the Games, key player Soumyajit Ghosh was expelled from the squad after serious allegations were levelled against him. Yet, there would be no loss of focus, as the final piece of the puzzle was in place.

"It didn't matter what was going on outside. For us only the Games was on our mind," Sathiyan says.

"The Commonwealth Games is one tournament where we know we can win. So we were really motivated going into the Games. We knew we had a chance to win the gold, we weren't going to let that slip this time."