New horizons, new hopes

Table tennis

winsome twosome: Sharath Kamal says he is keen to seek success in mixed doubles, where he won bronze with Manika Batra at the Asian Games.

At the ONGC guest home in the national capital, Sharath Kamal was still coming to terms with his record-breaking ninth table tennis national title. He even had the recording of the winning moment on his phone. It was the toughest final he had played.

His opponent, G Sathiyan, gave one hell of a fight, was up a championship point, but lost the final for the third time. Sharath, the ageless warrior, couldn’t help but feel for him. On the verge of surpassing the enduring record of Kamlesh Mehta, he himself struggled against the clamour of expectations. At one point, the noose of pressure became so tight that Sharath had to request his younger brother to come to Cuttack, the venue of the National championships.

“Before I came for the tournament it was not on my agenda to make it nine. I would have liked it to be nine but it was not like I wanted to beat Kamlesh sir’s record. Once I go to the tournament everybody is like, you need to win the tournament. It did play on my mind. Tuesday afternoon I called Rajat, my younger brother and said I need somebody to talk to, so if it’s possible please come. Lucky thing was the favourable draw for me,” Sharath said.

“It was the toughest final, and the quality of final was also really one of the best. The closest one before this was Soumyajit Roy in 2010, where he didn’t have a match point. Here I was down a match point but it should not have got to that point. I should have closed it earlier, I got a bit nervous, especially after losing the fifth game. Also, Sathiyan was also under a lot of pressure. I really felt for him.”

It was hard not to notice his improved fitness levels. A leaner looking 36-year-old admitted training vigorously the whole of December. “Last month what I did was crazy. After the CWG itself, I had put on weight. Then at UTT, I felt when I was looking at pictures, man I need to work on the tummy,” he laughed.

“After Asian Games, I took a break. I knew the race for the Olympic Games will start in January so I needed to start in December. I had four sessions of fitness which used to take me six hours. I did it for three weeks. I have put on muscle also. It helped at the nationals where every day I was in the hall for six to seven hours. Through the whole tournament, I played 17 matches in six days!

“In fact, the fellow players were very surprised how good my backhand had become. They didn’t know where to play me.”

It was a continuation of the good run for Sharath who was part of an excellent  2018 for Indian paddlers as they won medals in Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. “I don’t know if we can repeat that. With all those expectations we have made in 2018, 2019 is going to be really really hard for us to stand up to the expectations, especially for Manika Batra and Sathiyan.”

Speaking about his plans in the pre-Olympic year, he said: “Even though I am practising, I am spending lesser time on the table and taking care of my fitness. I am pretty happy with how things are going. I am going to Europe in the next three-four days. I am going to Copenhagen for four days before the Hungarian Open.

“We have to have a balance because more tournaments will lead to only fatigue and injuries. Between June, July and August, tournaments are just lined up. All Olympic qualifiers, 16 berths. We have a fair chance.”

The senior pro is taking the mixed doubles event seriously, especially after his bronze medal win with Manika in the Asian Games. The two won the mixed doubles event at the nationals and have chalked out a plan towards Olympic qualification.

“We have made a plan, this will be our training days and tournaments. I have put close to 45 days in a year where we will be practising mixed doubles through the world like in World Championship in Europe -- so that we take out time for an extra half an hour to practice mixed doubles. China, Korea and Japan are the only three countries practising mixed doubles. All the others just come and play,” he said.

“You can win a medal in Olympics in three rounds but it is the qualifying which is more difficult. In the year, there will be 12 tournaments where there will be mixed doubles. If we start off well at the beginning of the year, we will make it through to the quarters. Then we need to prepare for Pro Tour Finals (in December, featuring the top eight pairs). The top four from Pro Tour Finals get direct entry to the Olympics.”

The biggest worry for Indian paddlers now is the absence of a foreign coach. Their long-time coach Massimo Costantini left after the Asian Games, and it is only now that the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) have advertised for a coach.

Sharath grimly observed: “I think now it is too late. A coach should have been here now. All the planning I am doing myself for the next year. By the time the coach comes, it will be April at least. By then World Championships will be over. We have had such a good run, so for continuity, we should have had a coach by now. I am a little bit upset by Massimo also because he told us too late -- in September after I lost my match in the Asian Games.

“He gave too less a time to prepare for the next coach, probably he had his own reasons, but then if we had started off the search by July or August, it would have helped us. It is easier to start then because the season doesn’t start, the season starts off by September. We now have to settle with somebody lower, and I don’t know whether it is going to work. Because from the time he joins, it will take him 3-6 months to understand the system.”

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