The Indian men’s table tennis team had just beaten Vietnam 3-0 in a do-or-die match to qualify for the quarter-finals; it was their second match of the day. One would have expected the players to breathe a sigh of relief. However, the nerves were still jangling. The knock-out round draw was about to be announced. India had lost to Chinese Taipei earlier in the group stage and that meant they would end second in the group and face any of the other group toppers. China, Korea and Japan had topped their respective groups and the most favourable opponent for India would be Japan.
India were expected to make it to the knock-outs but it was all about whether they can apply the final push to win the quarter-final. For the last two editions, India had been facing powerhouse China in the quarters which meant it was virtually improbable to get that elusive medal.
An hour before the quarter-final, arrived the first turning point.
“We were very much tense on the eve of the draw when our flag-card was posed on one of the two covered cards (Japan and Korea),” India table tennis coach Massimo Costantini tells Firstpost. “And the moment the referee uncovered the card revealing JPN, it was definitely the turning point because it was what we expected and we were ready for it.”
Japan had not fielded their top three players in the Games. But still, they were a strong unit with higher ranked players in World No 19 Kenta Matsudiara, Jin Ueda (World No 28) and Yoshida Masaki (World No 57). For India, Sharath Kamal was the highest ranked player at 33; Sathiyan Gnanasekaran was ranked 39, Harmeet Desai was 99.
For India, this time, the task was difficult but not improbable. They had overpowered the weaker sides — UAE, Macau in straight matches (3-0), beaten the Vietnam 3-0 in must-win game and ran a higher-ranked Chinese Taipei close in a 2-3 defeat in a thrilling encounter.
Confidence was running high and the stage was set.
Then came the second turning point. In the team meeting, Sharath Kamal decided to play No 2 anticipating that Japan’s best player Matsudiara would go No 1. In team events, Sharath generally plays first, followed by Sathiyan, but this change in order was a tactical move. It meant that Kamal would meet the best Japanese player inside the first three games (2nd game) and a win would give India good early advantage. If Sharath had gone No 1, he would have played the World No 19 only in the fourth match. Also if in case the tie went down the wire, Kamal, India’s best player, would be playing the decider.
The strategy worked. Sathiyan Gnanasekaran started off with a 3-0 win over Ueda in the first match and then Kamal beat Matsudiara in the second match to give India a strong start at 2-0.
“Sharath wanted to play No.2 and that was a big call,” Sathiyan tells Firstpost. “Coming down at No 2 was a masterstroke by Sharath. We just surprised (them) with the fixtures, and I beating Jin Ueda in the first match was a big win because I had lost to him two years ago. Then Sharath beat Kenta, so straightaway going 2-0 was a big lead for us. That really made the difference.”
Harmeet Desai provided real hope when he went 2-1 up against Yoshida Masaki in the third rubber but couldn’t maintain the momentum and went down 2-3. It was now up to Sathiyan to seal the medal. The Chennai boy has been a vital cog in India’s table tennis team for the last few years. Here, he was up against the World No 19 in his debut Asian Games. The nerves were jangling but he had the solution to soothe them — play fearless.
He won a close game 12-10 to take a 1-0 lead but lost the second 6-11. The Chennai boy then upped the ante big time in the next two games to create history for India.
“I felt the nerves against Kenta,” Sathiyan recalls. “I have never played against him. I had played my debut CWG, debut World Championships and was directly playing in the high-pressure matches without any experience. It was a totally different atmosphere. I was directly into top 1-2 so it was huge, but I had the belief, (Subramaniam) Raman sir (personal coach) gave me the belief. I just played fearlessly, went for my shots and overcame the nerves which was the key. I stayed there mentally and tried to express myself. That really paid dividends. I am really happy that I could score the winning point and make history.”
While the players concentrated on the court, the coach made a few important strategic calls. With India scheduled to play three games in a day, the coach rested Kamal and Sathiyan for the first match of the day, against Macau.
“I told them that I wanted them fresh for the two evening matches. The 4 pm (against Vietnam) was a good test especially for Sathiyan, he played with a Vietnamese player who beat him in the last Asian Championships, so for Sathiyan was a very good warm-up,” says Costantini.
“We were supposed to stay in the venue after the first match but I asked the players to go back and get little rest in the village, I did not want them to stay 10 hours (on the court) and get tired.”
“It was very hard (to spend) the entire day in the stadium,” says Sathiyan “But Indians are always prepared for the worst and we just made sure that we had the entire team like the physio and masseur keeping us fine. Mentally it was a big challenge to stay calm and keep coming fresh for every match.”
It was a given that on the day, all the three members of the team would have to be at the top of their game for India to have any chance of beating an Asian giant. While Kamal and Sathiyan won their matches, Desai’s fight in the third game kept the pressure constant after a 2-0 lead.
“To win big games like these it’s important to have a very strong team,” Sathiyan explains “Sharath, I and Harmeet, we are a very, very strong team. The team bonding was the main reason (for the win). We’ve been playing together for so long and everyone was in great shape, great form and India had a great day.”
“The only goal is to get a medal. Just one medal will change the whole thing because we have never won a medal there. It doesn’t matter what if its singles, doubles, mixed doubles or teams,” Kamal had told Firstpost before the start of the Games.
One could sense the hunger, craving, and desire in his voice to bring home the elusive medal. Countries like China, Japan and Korea Republic are used to winning medals but India is not. And it was this desire coupled with self-belief that gave them the final push. The Indians have beaten the Asians on the Pro Tours in the last few years, so why not at the big events?
“For us, it was important to believe. Everyone believed together. It was really important that we put the pressure on Japan all the time so that they could see that India is here to get the medal,” Desai tells Firstpost. “We have come close before but couldn’t convert it and this time we were very much prepared and eventually we could get this medal. Staying fresh or motivated wasn’t too difficult for us because we were here to win a medal.”
“Being in with a chance to win a medal for the first time, the biggest difficulties were with regards to the mental aspect,” says Costantini. “The question was, ‘Were our players capable to keep up mentally in a contest which was always a losing contest?’ However, Sharath and Co displayed great mental strength by managing (the pressure well) and dominating the match.”
The underdogs tag played its role too. At the CWG, they were expected to win medals so there was pressure, but in Jakarta, they had nothing to lose which gave them the freedom to play freely and fearlessly.
India ultimately went down 0-3 to Korea Republic in the semi-final, there were lessons to be learnt. However, getting off the mark is always special.
Yay yay yay yay!!!
This is what winning feels like! @sharathkamal1@sathiyantt@HarmeetDesai #Amalraj #ManavThakkar #Incredible #WinningMoments #tabletennis #AsianGames2018 pic.twitter.com/BwnNqnSh0i
— Neha Aggarwal (@nehaaggarwal) August 27, 2018
“This medal means everything. it’s fantastic, it’s like mini Olympics as far as table tennis is concerned,” says Sathiyan. “It’s huge. I would put this at the top of all my achievements. This is the biggest achievement for me, country and the entire TT fraternity. We won so many CWG medals but Asian Games medal is something very very special. Winning this bronze after 60 years, for the first time, in itself talks about how huge it is.”
At the CWG, Indian women won their first ever table tennis gold, Manika Batra won India’s first ever table tennis singles gold; at the World Championships, Indian men’s team had their best finish in 31 years — 13th. In a year of firsts, the Indian men’s team and the pair of Sharath-Manika (first ever bronze in mixed doubles) have added two more to the list. And with the singles event around the corner and momentum in their arsenal, India will hope for few more firsts before they fly out of Jakarta.