Are we ready for Olympic dreams?
These are encouraging times in the Indian sports scenario. Sports thinking seems to have undergone a reawakening and there is more thrust on self-confidence. Goals that seemed unattainable some time back now appear within reach or better still they are no longer imposing. Sportspersons in most disciplines at one time made up the numbers in the contingent with little talk of rewards.
That phase probably is on the way out. What has triggered this immediate sense of buoyancy in outlook is the way table tennis is shaping in the country and the way it has demanded attention in recent times with a string of achievements to show.
Not known to have come up with anything major in terms of international performance barring the 1976 show of Sudhir Phadke in reaching the quarterfinal of the Asian Championship, the first Indian to achieve that, table tennis players in 2018 sparkled in the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast with seven medals, Manika Batra alone accounting for four including gold in the women's singles and team event.
If that was good for a starter, then the Asian Games brought the unprecedented moment of two medals. India has never won a medal in the Asian Games earlier and so the two bronzes in Jakarta brought by the men's team led by Sharath Kamal and then another by him and Manika in the mixed doubles was further proof that this latest lot of players and that included the up and coming Sathiyan Gnanasekharn were all of sterner stuff and out to prove a point or two.
We have seen how badminton courted success in such a fascinating way. For long have we been narrating the exploits of Prakash Padukone and then later P. Gopichand to highlight badminton in India, until dramatically the sport's fortunes shot up thanks to the entry of Saina Nehwal, Srikanth and of course P.V. Sindhu and others. Not only did they rock the power equations in the sport at the international level but Saina and Sindhu rose to become the greatest challengers to the stubborn Chinese.
We have seen how the two brought focus on Indian badminton in such phenmomenal way with Saina grabbing the country's first Olympic medal in badminton, a bronze in the London Games in 2012 and the first female Indian shuttler to attain the world number one ranking. Sindhu then went on to raise the bar further. If a silver medal in the Rio Olympics in 2016 was not good enough she went on to win the World championship this year and suddenly the quest for an Olympic gold next seem a valid ambition for Indian badminton.
Table tennis that way may still lag behind but hopes have been kindled after not just the performances in the last one year but from the latest offering through that delightful 26-year old talent Sathiyan. The Chennai player, an unassuming lot, and one who had given equal importance to academics as he had for table tennis, Sathiyan ever since he completed his engineering course has been giving his all for table tennis.
Tuned by a former national champion at his High performance centre in Chennai, this young man has been creating all the right noises to indicate his growing performance-level. Already the man who brought India its first ever medal in the world championship, a bronze in the team event in the 2011 junior championship, Sathiyan breathed fire in the just concluded Asian championship held in Yogyakarta in Indonesia by becoming the second Indian after Phadke to reach the quarterfinal. More than that it was the way he tamed the world number five Tomokazu Harimoto of Japan that caught the eye.
Granted that Harimoto is just 16 years but at the table he is a champion player and considered the best outside China. Age difference thus does not make Sathiyan's win any less meritorious for such is the class of this Japanese, who is a world junior champion and one has promise to go far in the sport. It is a different matter that the Indian then lost to world number four Lin Gaoyuan of China next but even there he did not give in easily, even grabbing a game from the Chinese. But Sathiyan, currently the highest ranked Indian at 30 (he was 24 in May) has already attracted interest from the Chinese, the world's strongest force in this sport. They have begun to watch his game closely is his submission.
Can he do a Sindhu or Saina act in table tennis? Excited as he is over his recent performances, Sathiyan believes it was definitely possible to win a medal in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. At one time statements of this nature, particularly from a table tennis player would have been laughable. But the strides this man alone has made from being in the top 100 ranking just few months ago and now into the top 30 and the streaks of brilliance he had exhibited just gives the right level of inspiration to the rest of his colleagues. That is how it happened in badminton.
One great benefit modern day Indian players have is the availability of expertise and facilities to tune them up for the big occasion. Credit has to go to former players of repute who have taken it upon themselves to plough back into the sport the experience and gains they had made and help make things happen.
Players like Padukone and Gopichand showed that in badminton and the results are there for everyone to see. Indeed there is more to come from them. Similarly Raman has been the man who has watched and trained Sathiyan closely. The man has himself sacrificed his regular job to concentrate fully on improving table tennis in general and Sathiyan could well be his greatest reward and the country's biggest star. Who knows what more surprises are in store for Indian sports!