"He's the guy I lost to," Sharath Kamal would preface his pitch for a young, unknown 150-something ranked fellow Indian player, to a bunch of European table tennis clubs five years ago.
Already a three-time Olympian and a mainstay at the German club Borussia Dusseldorf for six straight seasons then, Sharath had been beaten in the 2016 Nationals by a 22-year-old and was keen to help him. He eventually got his junior a training call-up from Bundesliga's top division club ASV Grunwettersbach. This week, Sharath makes his fourth Olympic appearance while the player who beat him back then, G Sathiyan, is prepped for a Games debut.
Sharath and Sathiyan, India's top two men's singles players, come from the same city, Chennai; they share a physical trainer, travel together for tournaments and camps and are on the same side of the playing table as occasional doubles partners. And they are both Rajnikanth fans. Sharath - ranked 32- leans on Sathiyan (ranked 38) for the quick calculations and ranking maths and understanding of ITTF's newest batch of regulations and criteria, and in turn helps out with unscheduled overseas sparring trips, advice on foreign leagues, contracts and more lately for a how-to reckoner on tackling the enormity of a debut Olympic occasion.
When Sathiyan was 19, Sharath set up a week's training for him at his club facility in Dusseldorf. "I didn't have anywhere to stay so I crashed at Sharath anna's place," Sathiyan says, "That's how he's always been, ready to open doors for younger players. For a guy of his stature in Germany to go around clubs and say he'd lost to a little-known player like me back in 2016 must have taken some serious heart."
Sharath's helpfulness stems from his own difficult early years in the sport. "I learnt it the hard way," Sharath, pauses to recall, "I didn't know where to go, or whom to turn to. I always felt if I had good senior players then, I may not have had to run around, looking for answers or direction. The thing with Sathiyan is he's a hungry, inquisitive player. Not every young player comes up and asks you questions or advise, but Sathiyan does it consistently. It just shows his drive to get better."
His pitch for Sathiyan at overseas clubs, however, ran into questions early. "Initially, when I introduced Sathiyan to them," Sharath chuckles, "quite a few of the European coaches and managers were really curious and asked me 'are you sure he can play?' You know they look at him and here's this Indian guy, like really thin and small built and they have their doubts. But one session with him, and they were sold."
Sathiyan himself has now turned into something of a sought-after foreign signing, turning out for clubs in Poland and Japan."Someday, I really want to do a case study on Sathiyan," Sharath - 11 years the senior - says. "His rise as a player has been exponential and it happened in the span of just one year (Sathiyan was ranked 125 in May 2017 and 49 in January 2018). It might work as a good reference for the next batch of players. He is analytical and has a pakka engineer's mind. Unlike him, I'm not too updated on the rankings and the changes in regulations. He usually comes up to me and says 'anna you should maybe go for this tournament, this is how many ranking points you can gain or the field in this one isn't too strong'. Before the 2019 Canadian Open, I was thinking to myself, 'Kaun jayega (Who'll go to) Canada, that too in December'! But he convinced me that I might be in for a good payoff. Manika (Batra) and I ended up making the mixed doubles semifinals in that one."
When Sathiyan nudged a reluctant Sharath to forward his entry for the Oman Open in March last year, it yielded his first Pro Tour title in a decade.
Their partnership also builds on the language bond: players from outside the state don't understand Tamil. Bengali is the most common regional language at national camps, given the number of players from West Bengal.
"We've always had Bengali players in the team, so both Sharath anna and myself somewhat follow the language, but the non-Tamil guys can't really grasp when we talk amongst ourselves. At the table, when your partner speaks your mother tongue especially in a foreign land, it's like having support from your hometown," says Sathiyan, "We both are really expressive, so it's often me saying adinga anna (go for the shot, brother), vetti podunge (serve with backspin) and he'll be like thooku (open it up) and we make it a point to almost never speak in English."
Sharath's mention even pops up at dinner-table conversations at Sathiyan's home. Not for his forehand drives, but choice of facial hair. "My mother often gives me Sharath anna's example and says 'look how clean shaven he is, why don't you try it too'. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be allowed home if I tried his long-locks look though."
The camaraderie is briefly put on hold only on one occasion - the Nationals. Sathiyan won his first ever national title earlier this year, beating nine-time champion Sharath in the final. This was only the second instance where he got the better of Sharath at the domestic event after Hyderabad, 2016.
"It's two-all now," Sathiyan says of the win-loss count. "When we go into a national championship, it's almost with a completely different mindset. It's one tournament where I feel like I'm there just for myself. It's also perhaps the only time when we're together for a competition and yet don't practice with each other."
Once the tournament is done, they're back to being travel chums. "The day after we played the final that I won, we were back on the road, sharing meals," he adds, "Even after our Olympic qualifiers match in March (which Sathiyan won), we stayed up playing a sequence cards game that night. Though he was the one who taught me, I've managed to beat him a couple of times. He's competitive in cards too and really hates losing!"
Their approach to the Olympics has been typically disparate. One looks at it through the calm of a lived experience, the other, bristles with the zealous energy of a first-timer. Sathiyan had the San-Ei Absolute W advanced table, the very kind that will be used at the Tokyo Games, specially shipped from Japan. He's counting on a headstart in growing acquainted with the behavior of the surface. He's also tinkered with his choice of rubbers, switching to Tenergy 05 hard on the forehand and Dignics 09c on the backhand. The rubber is customized to extra hard effect for him by makers Butterfly for greater-impact shots.
"I'm trying to bulk up my power game, where I can strike the ball harder," says Sathiyan, "Rallies have been my strength, the longer it gets, the better I play. But I'm working on packing in that punch in the first two balls too. It's actually Sharath anna's kind of style. Of course it can't be my A game, but it will help to have it in my artillery."
Sharath, on the other hand, hasn't experimented with rubbers since 2015. "Perhaps I'm too old for it," he laughs. The most perceptible change, however, lies in the shift of his own expectations from a Games outing. "Until 2016, it was more like 'OK I want to perform well', but I didn't really have a major goal. Of course, you always want to win a medal but realistically I was still far from actually getting it given the rankings. This is the first time I think I have a fair shot at a medal, a mixed doubles one with Manika. It's made me a bit more excited than I would've otherwise been. Or I may have been telling myself, 'chalo let's see what's in store'. Now there's a real prospect I can actually look forward to and not just another Olympic trip on my CV."
At 28, Sathiyan affirms his body is "in much better shape" than it was last year. While for Sharath, a delayed Olympics offers a tempting prospect at lengthening the closing lap of his career. He will turn 39 in July. The Commonwealth Games and Asian Games are now just a year away and the next Olympic Games, three years from now. "2024 suddenly seems very near," he says, "Of course, I don't want to be just going there for the heck of it. I should be in some position to deliver."