As a young teen, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran would smack his paddle against the ball, with the wall in his room serving as the imaginary opponent. To breathe life into the contest, he'd often scribble out the name of a ferocious international player on a scrap of paper, blu-tack it to the wall and get the ball to ricochet off it. German legend and former World No. 1 Timo Boll was that guy.
On Saturday, Sathiyan will play Boll for the first time ever in the round-of-16 match of the World Cup in Chengdu, China. A win in this knock-out stage would likely have him facing world No. 1 Fan Zhendong in the quarterfinals. A frontier no Indian player has ever breached. Achanta Sharath Kamal became the first Indian to qualify for the World Cup in 2013 and went on to feature in two successive editions after that. His best finish, however, has been a round-of-16 appearance.
The pickings for the World Cup, a crème de la crème affair, include the top eight players of the world, the reigning champion, world champion and the strongest players from each of the six continents. This year, Sathiyan is the only Indian to qualify for the annual tournament by virtue of a sixth-place finish at the Asian Cup in Japan in April. "He's (Boll) the toughest guy in the top 5-8 bracket," says Sathiyan, "But then in a World Cup, there are no easy draws."
On Friday, the World No. 30-ranked Indian beat two higher-ranked players - Simon Gauzy (World No. 22) and Jonathan Groth (World No. 24) in group-stage matches barely six hours apart. He'd beaten neither before. "It's a great day in my career. Both were tight matches, but I was moving well and my speed was helping. That eventually made the difference when it came to close points."
Over the past few months, Sathiyan has taken quite the revolutionary road in getting his game to hit a fresh level. Around mid-year, on the advice of coach S Raman, he switched from Tenergy 05 to Dignics 05 rubber, the new entrant in the market, on his backhand side. With a super speed of 13 and a spin of 11.5, it is arguably a more potent weapon than Tenergy 05. The arc, rotation and power generated by it is a lot higher along with pronounced advantages in counter-looping, hitting the ball like an exploding grenade. The rubber grips the ball well, with greater abrasion and resistance on the surface, lending stability to the strokes. Sathiyan tested it out at the German League and this World Cup is the first major tournament that he's putting it to use. "At the start I was doubtful," he says, "but now I've come to both like and adapt to it. I can see the excellent trajectory while driving and the freedom of swing that it offers. Usually I don't move away from the table too often by habit. I saw myself do that a few times against Gauzy today, so it's a good sign. I need to get myself to do it more often. It's the need of the hour."
Then there's the Hurricane.
In the weeks leading up to the World Cup, Sathiyan had young Chinese player Shen Yaohuan coming down to his base in Chennai for an eight-day session. It was the first time an Indian table tennis player brought a professional foreign sparring partner to the country. Usually Indian players travel overseas for high-quality sparring. Shen brought along the Hurricane, the rubber exclusively used by Chinese players on their forehand side, with him. The spin that the Hurricane generates is phenomenal and it gets the ball to jump, leap and do all sorts of things. "Even the sound that the Hurricane creates when the ball hits it is so different," says Sathiyan. "The impact of the ball also is extremely high. Those five-six hour sessions everyday were a huge bonus for me, especially mentally. Today when Groth was playing high-impact shots on a few occasions, I wasn't flustered. I was able to counter them. It takes the fear out of you."
In his wins over higher-ranked opponents, Sathiyan doesn't necessarily see a fairy-tale script. He's acutely aware of his strength that belies his numerical position in the pecking order. "We're almost of the same strength so I know deep within that it's not a surprise that I'm beating them," he says, "Of course you have to call it an 'upset' on social media but the difference between us is really minuscule."
In World No. 8 Boll, 38, Sathiyan has what he calls an "unimaginable" encounter waiting. The seven-time European champion is something of a table tennis superstar, a demi-god in the Far East who can barely get through immigration in China without being mobbed. In March 2018, he became the sport's oldest world number one.
"I grew up watching him play," says the 26-year-old Indian, "His longevity in the sport, just lasting at the top for so long has been stunning. I've played him in my head, against the wall, countless times but across the table it will be a first. I will put up a fight. I have nothing to lose."