It was just a four-shot rally, when Drinkhall couldn’t keep his return to Sathiyan’s forehand on the table. Raising his hands in elation for a second, Sathiyan lay flat on the ground the next moment, while Drinkhall turned to the other side in dismay. The home crowd rose in support of both the players. Wiping the tears rolling out of his eyes, Sathiyan got up, and the two players shook hands. Admiration was the underlying theme of those scenes.
For Sathiyan, it was like summiting a peak. It wasn’t a gold medal, but a singles medal nevertheless, bronze that is — his first at any quadrennial ‘Games’, fulfilling a promise he had quietly made to his dad up there in the heavens and to his mom, whom he calls ‘the iron lady’ of the family.
The engineer from Chennai, who likes to knock around on the TT table, put his emotions into words in this chat with TimesofIndia.com.
You lay flat on the ground after winning the point that clinched you the bronze medal. Take us through those moments…
When you want something so badly and you achieve it after such an intense match, emotions come out. I had never cried on the court till now. I don’t remember the last time I shed happy tears. I am always shouting and aggressive; that’s the way I (usually) celebrate. This was something that came out naturally at that time…The sense of happiness and relief (after) my struggle and everything.
Probably it wouldn’t have been the same had I won 4-0 or something. But the way it went, see-saw, then being 8-9 down in the seventh game and winning it 11-9, that was some match. It was certainly the hardest fought match of my career till now.
After the men’s team gold, you shared the singles podium with the legendary Sharath Kamal, who continues to soldier on for India. What’s it been like being a part of Sharath’s journey as a team-mate?
What he does on court, you can’t compare that with anyone (else). What he has been doing for so long, playing at this level, it is unimaginable. Doing this itself is so hard and he is winning gold medals. Seeing the level at which he was playing in Birmingham we all knew that there is absolutely no chance for anyone to beat him. He was in supreme form and the fitness levels he showed with back-to-back matches (was commendable).
I think we are really lucky and fortunate to have a great human being first and then a legendary player like him in our team. To learn directly from him and share his experiences on how to handle pressure and such things has helped the team…The best part is we never feel he is 10-12 years older than us when he is with us in the team. He is just one among us, mingling like a 25-26 year-old. You are free to go to him and talk. He is always there to listen. Giving that freedom also helps so much that we could connect really well. That’s the reason team bonding has been excellent over the years.
I hope he (Sharath) just continues until the next Commonwealth Games at least. As long as Sharath and I are in the team, India will be the team to beat on the world stage.
Sharath didn’t have a good final in the team event, losing his singles match before you and Harmeet Desai won to defend the title against Singapore…
This has happened in the past, but we have supported each other. Sharath played an amazing match with Aruna Quadri (in the men’s team semifinal against Nigeria) the previous night. When we won the doubles (match in the final), we almost felt like we would run them over, but we knew Singapore was a dangerous team. (Clarence) Chew played really well and I think Sharath was under a little bit of pressure.
I can admit that when Sharath lost his match, it was a little bit of a surprising result. The team was back under pressure…(I was) Playing a dangerous player (Koen Pang) in the very crucial third match. Had I lost that match, we would have gone 1-2 down, which would have put Harmeet under pressure…But it was not that I was playing alone even if it was a singles match; the whole team supported me.
Now, over the years, we have learnt to deliver under pressure. We were the favourites, going in as defending champions. That’s why it was even sweeter…These Games, I would say, were even better than 2018 because we delivered under pressure being the favourites.
You though won relatively easily, after Harmeet won his singles match 3-0 to confirm the men’s team gold…
I felt the pressure, like I said. But I played it like a normal match. It’s important to deliver on how Sathiyan has to play in that match, irrespective of the situation. When you are able to do that, play a match based on what you have prepared, the process and what you need to do, the results and the medals will be taken care of…But it’s easier said than done, it’s very difficult.
You and Manika Batra were one of the favourites in the mixed doubles event. But while Sharath and Sreeja Akula went all the way to win gold, you and Manika exited in the quarterfinals. What happened there?
One unfortunate thing was that this Malaysian pair was completely new. They were quite good, but had never played together in any international event. They were an ‘out of the syllabus’ kind of pair. So it was difficult to prepare any strategy (against them), we didn’t know the way they were going to play. The left-handed Malaysian girl (Karen Lyne) had beaten Manika in the team event, and she was playing well with the soft rubber….So the disadvantage we had was playing an unknown pair…they came as a surprise to us.
We didn’t play badly; in fact, we played quite well. At a point we were leading 2-1 and we should have closed the next game leading 6-4. But they just kept fighting back. Moreover, they had nothing to lose.
Do you believe that the pressure of not having an individual Games medal in your career weighed a little more on you before you won the men’s singles bronze?
In the team event, I could manage that (pressure), but in singles, not winning an individual medal in 2018 (weighed on me)….so there was a lot of pressure. Initially it didn’t strike me (in the bronze-medal match), but when the match went on and the English crowd went crazy in support (of Drinkhall), that match also extended to 4-2. Drinkhall played really well. Credit to him for fighting back (from 0-3 down)….But I really wanted that (singles medal).
Your coach, S Raman, has played a big role in your rise to this level. What were his thoughts and feelings after you won the singles bronze in Birmingham?
Raman sir was also very emotional. Not many words, just emotions coming out for him as well. The way we have worked so hard in the last 10 years, slogging day in and day out. Winning this CWG singles medal was always a dream for me. No Indian (male) had ever won it before, except Sharath. Also, I wanted to build that confidence going into the bigger events. This is the first ‘Games’ singles medal for me. Something like that gives you a sense of confidence.
After your father’s death, the role of your mother in shaping your career can’t really be put into words. How did she react?
She told me that when she saw me crying, it reminded her of my dad because he also used to be a very emotional person. She said she couldn’t watch that match. Her heart rate, BP and everything shot up. It was so difficult to watch. She too was very emotional because she knew how hard I was working for this singles medal. The sacrifices (the family had to make) after dad passed away, it was not an easy journey for her to be alone and give me the confidence and strength. It’s something that helped me pursue my career.
She has been an ‘iron lady’ of our family, taking care of everything so that I could concentrate on the sport. She was probably more happy than I was. I dedicate this medal to my dad and mother. Dad would also have been extremely happy. I always wanted to get this medal for mom and dad.
An Olympic medal is an obvious target. What else have you set your eyes on?
Asian Games will be pretty hard, but we would like to repeat our 2018 performance (winning the men’s team bronze). If we could show that dominance and win a medal there again, that would be fantastic building up to the Paris Olympics.
The CWG singles medal was important for me to get the confidence for the Olympics. An Olympic medal will be the biggest goal, not just for me but it will be historic for (Indian) table tennis in general. No one has done that before, not even gone close, and it’s very much achievable the way we are playing. The men’s team has a huge chance there and I think the mixed doubles, where we directly start with 16 pairs.
So yes, the bigger target is to win an Olympic medal; and personally for me, I really want to get into the top 15 of the world rankings.