Sathiyan Gnanasekaran was to play his first Polish Superliga match for Sokolow SA Jarsoslaw last week. He is now refreshing live scores of his team’s matches on his computer screen from his Chennai home. Across town, Bhavani Devi hasn’t heard from the Italian embassy in India in weeks. Her coach Nicola Zanotti has the challenging task of holding on to an untroubled expression during their daily zoom video calls. Bhavani is now six months into being away from her training base in the Italian port city of Livorno.
Both Bhavani and Sathiyan – India’s top fencer and second highest ranked men’s table tennis player respectively – are facing the same problems. They are both Indian athletes who are on the edge of Olympic qualification but now find themselves upended by pandemic-enforced travel regulation.
Sathiyan’s team Sokolow, with most of its Asian team members being unable to join this season, have lost two of their first three matches so far. In search of answers, Sathiyan reached out to Indian tennis player Rohan Bopanna, who flew out of the country in August for tournaments in the US and Europe.
“I got in touch with Rohan [Bopanna] and he was kind enough to promptly share his invitation letter. There’s one that the Italian tennis federation wrote for him [for the Rome Masters] which helped him with immigration clearance. I am using that letter as a sort of template and have requested Sokolow officials to forward it to the Polish table tennis federation so that a similar invitation letter can be drafted for me, highlighting that the Superliga is a top international league involving players from different parts of the world. Of course, it’s a lot more straightforward if it’s an ATP event, or a pro tour TT tournament rather than a league.”
Sathiyan has a valid Schengen visa and once an invitation letter from the Polish TT federation comes through, he’s hoping to join the side for their streak of four matches in mid-October. “There have been reports of some of the Schengen countries, like Germany, shutting down borders for a couple of days. I’m supposed to travel to Poland via Germany so being stuck on the way or put under quarantine is something I want to hopefully avoid. This window of getting match practice is crucial for me. I’ve already missed the first month of the league. If I lose out on October’s matches too, the year is practically done for me as far as the Polish league goes.”
Sathiyan has also signed up for the Okayama Rivets side in the Japanese T-League. He’s the first Indian player to be part of the TT league in Japan. The original idea was for the world no. 32 to fly to Japan straight from Poland after his Superliga matches. Now that seems like a “greedy plan.” Sathiyan doesn’t have a Japan visa and he isn’t certain he’ll be able to procure one before he leaves for Poland. He is considering returning to India after October’s Superliga matches, skip the T-League training group and join the side in time for matches starting November 18.
Currently, India has air bubble arrangements, aimed at restarting commercial passenger services, with 13 countries. The central government is understood to be negotiating extending similar arrangements with other countries like Italy, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Kenya, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Philippines.
Italy being on the next list of countries for direct commercial flights should come as a relief for Bhavani. “The Italian embassy had told me that I’ll be eligible for travel only once commercial flights resume,” she says, “I’ve been constantly calling them, writing emails to them. Since the past few weeks, they’ve stopped responding. It’s easy to feel anxious and unsettled when you’re away from your training base. My coach has been telling me to stay calm and wait it out. It’s what I’m trying to do.”
Bhavani’s Schengen visa expired on September 9 so now she’ll have to get a fresh one before she can travel. She has a letter from the Italian National Olympic Committee attesting to her training in the country, safely filed away for use in her travel application. She’s been training at the Nehru indoor stadium in her hometown Chennai since the past couple of months. It’s a welcome break from her earlier terrace routines. It allows her the flexibility of timing, not having to rush before the sun gets harsh or wait until sunset, and flooring that wouldn’t sore her knees out. The fencing federation of India, headed by IOA secretary general Rajeev Mehta, has proposed that Bhavani join other national fencers at the Army Institute of Sports in Pune since it would offer her sparring partners. She’s still undecided over the idea.
As Sathiyan and Bhavani await clarity on their situation, both are gainfully putting this time to use in acquainting Indian sports fans with their respective sporting disciplines and journeys. A fortnight ago, Bhavani launched her website, which she hopes will serve as a tool for re-telling her story, shedding light on her sport and educating followers on details of future competitions.
Sathiyan has, since the past few weeks, been picking out past matches, putting them for download overnight and uploading them on his YouTube channel. “I started out by editing short clips of points I’d won with background music but soon most people wrote back saying they want to see full matches. It’s what I’m trying to do now. But there’s only so many old matches you can recycle and put out there. For new content, I’d have to go out there and play.”