When the title was won, Gnanasekaran Sathiyan and Harmeet Desai celebrated in their own way. “We jumped around, really pumped up, and then a tight hug, nothing loose,” Sathiyan says. It’s a celebration they don’t get to indulge in too often because they haven’t played doubles together since the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
On Saturday, the first time they paired up in three years, they ended up claiming the World Table Tennis Contender title in Tunis, Tunisia, beating the French team of Emmanuel Lebesson and Alexandre Cassin 3-1 in the final. It was their first tour doubles title, both individually and together. And there is long-term significance of the achievement as well.
“We’re keeping in mind the team events at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games next year and also the Paris Olympics,” explains Sathiyan.
“All these years, it has generally been (Achanta) Sharath Kamal and Harmeet who pair up for the doubles match. We thought that if Harmeet and I play some tournaments and the combination works, it’ll give the team another option of whom to play for the doubles matches.”
The duo may not have played for three years, but the last time they did, they won the rubber that secured the team gold at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast. Since then, both have had varied paths in their individual table tennis journeys – Sathiyan rose to become the World No. 24 singles player (the best rank any Indian has ever achieved), and Desai, currently 73rd in the world, has secured his place as a top 100 player.
Coming together to play on the same side of the table though, after three years, found both of them delving into their shared past on the domestic circuit.
Sathiyan remembers the camaraderie building since they first met at a national event in 2001, and then became regulars in the national team a decade later.
“We’re good friends off court, and share a lot of data and analysis,” says the 28-year-old, currently ranked 37. “We know more about each other’s strengths and weaknesses than anybody else. And we have the belief in each other that if I’m saying something, he knows I’m not bluffing.”
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That trust and data-sharing came to the fore, especially in the tough semi-final against the World No. 7 pair of Nandor Ecseki and Adam Szudi of Hungary.
“Harmeet had tried a banana-serve at one point but it didn’t work. He seemed to be a bit rattled but I told him to keep at it. He did and it worked in our favour,” Sathiyan says.
“Harmeet also noticed that Nandor, who is a tricky left-hander, was banking on weak backhand returns from me on crucial points. He told me about it and said to step around the shot (convert it to a forehand) and hit a few strong returns.
“That’s the kind of input we could give each other only because we knew each other’s games so well.”
It was more of the same in the final against the French team.
“We both play close to the table and play fast,” Desai says. “When I attack, he can follow and when he attacks, I can keep up. It’s something that caught the Europeans by surprise.
“This was a good morale-booster. Sharath and Sathiyan had come up with the plan for us to play to test the combination. We were comfortable and it was easy for us. Feels really good to win the title.”
Now they will start playing on the same side of the court more often.
“It’ll help ease some pressure on Sharath so he doesn’t have to play every doubles match. At the same time, the opponents knew it’s always Sharath and Harmeet, now we can keep them guessing because there’s another combination in the mix,” Sathiyan adds.