'Rusty' Sathiyan levels up with new blade and human sparring

G Sathiyan is relieved to box up his robot and return to human sparring G Sathiyan

G Sathiyan is relieved to box up his robot and return to human sparring. Away from training for over four months, India's second-highest ranked men's table tennis player resumed practice on Monday following the Tamil Nadu state government's go-ahead to open up sports complexes and stadia.

Though he has been hitting with the Butterfly amicus prime robot - a ball launcher - set up at one end of his playing table at home, an hour's session with his coach S Raman on Monday was a much-needed reality check.

"My footwork and movements felt rusty," he said. "Though my hand-eye coordination and technique hasn't really deteriorated because of the robot training, I'm struggling to sync my movement and ball timing. Also, I was tiring out after 5-6 balls. It will take some time. I know I'll get there in two weeks so I'm trying not to rush myself."

Ordinarily buzzing with trainees, Monday's session had Sathiyan going up against his coach in an empty facility housed in a floor above the latter's home. Training, the No. 32 ranked Indian says, has in an average year always been a luxury. It's only now, free from travels and tournaments, that it seems more purposeful.

It has given him time to experiment and rebuild his game.

"I usually play very close to the table, but I'm now trying to play at a medium to long distance behind the table. I was finding counter top-spins difficult and missing some balls completely. But I just kept telling myself that it's only day one."

Sathiyan is also looking to switch blades from the Mizutani Jun Super ZLC to the Zhang Jike Super ZLC, the primary difference lying in the speed generated. The former, that he's currently using, offers supersonic speed with a tradeoff of low control. The Zhang Jike Super ZLC, which he had shipped from Japan and received its customs clearance at the Chennai airport only a day ago, is slower but promises both power and control.

"My current blade is fast, hard impact and difficult to control in faster conditions. I've been working on building my physical strength and I wanted to try out a more powerful blade. It's always a tussle between power and touch, so you want to try till you get it right."

He is also in the enviable position of not having to wait for ITTF, the world body, to resume competitions in order to get a game. International travel permitting, Sathiyan is scheduled to play his first match for reigning Polish Superliga champions, Sokolow SA Jaroslaw, on September 25. He will be lined up for five matches in the Polish league and then turn up for Okayama Rivets in the T-League in October. He will be the first Indian to be part of the Japanese league which has some of Asia's best players.

Sathiyan, who earlier turned out for Bundesliga's top division club ASV Grunwettersbach, was approached by the Polish Superliga four months ago which he passed up on. But it was a different world then, when calendars weren't ditched and the Olympics was still on. Now, with international tournaments on hold, Sathiyan sees league appearances as a smart way to gain some match practice.

"In the German league, matches are played only on Sundays so to get five matches I had to stay back for five weeks. In the Polish Superliga I'll be saving up on time since I'll be playing five matches in two weeks."

These past few months, though, haven't been entirely unproductive. Together with his coach Raman, Sathiyan used the time to draw up a handy database on the world's top 50 players.

"Every day we would both watch 2-3 short videos of one top 50 player and then put down our observations," he said. "We now have a log ready and it could be a helpful reference whenever I face any of them in future matches. We're treating it as a systematic path to break into the top 10. "

Sathiyan sees all of this as a fresh start - human sparring, new blades and a plan to find a way to the top.