Indian table tennis ace Sharath Kamal wants youngsters to take over from him
Sharath Kamal, who recently equalled legendary Kamlesh Mehta's record eight National TT titles, says youngsters need to take over the mantle from him in order to give the sport a boost in India
India's Sharath Kamal plays against Chinese Gaoyuan Lin during the World Table Tennis Championships in Germany last year. PIC/AFP
For almost a decade, Sharath Kamal Achanta has been the torchbearer of Indian table tennis. And at 35, he remains quite the dominant force, considering the Chennai man recently bagged his eighth National crown, equalling the feat of the legendary Kamlesh Mehta. So, when asked just how much steam has he got left in him, he replied: "I don't know. Once the Commonwealth Games (April 4-15) are over, the immediate plan would be to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics."
Records were never on Sharath's radar throughout an immaculate career that professionally took off in 1997-98 and has seen him, among other accolades, walk away with three gold medals at the Commonwealth Games (men's singles and men's team event at the 2006 edition in Melbourne and men's doubles at 2010 in New Delhi). "It's probably my passion for the sport that has kept me going for so long. In the last couple of years, I have been working on my physical fitness a lot. I need to catch up with the younger players. The skill is there, but I need to be fitter. I need to be fast," the veteran player added.
Indian table tennis star Sharath Kamal Achanta with wife Sripoorni, daughter Suyasha and son Tejas
Elaborating on the recent record-equalling eighth title, in Ranchi, he said: "I wanted to win as it would be a good boost ahead of the CWG. I was not thinking about breaking any record. Throughout the tournament, I was in good shape and form." Sharath's determination and sincerity for the game won many hearts, including that of Mehta himself, who witnessed that Ranchi final. "Sharath has gone through many ups and downs in his career. He has made a lot of technical changes to his game as well. To make those adjustments and then as age catches up, to maintain your fitness, with the game becoming faster and quicker, is a fantastic effort," said Mehta, who felt Sharath still has at least two to three years of high-level TT left in him.
If success has been Sharath's close accomplice of late, he's had his share of hiccups through injuries, particularly a hamstring injury which left him wheelchair-bound for four weeks in May 2015. "Back in 2011, the game was changing. My daughter was born and I couldn't keep up with the changes necessary in the game. My rankings slipped from World No. 39 to 94. I didn't qualify for the London Olympics (2012) but then I started working with a personal coach and moved to Germany. That helped me climb back to 32 in the world. In May 2015, I climbed up to World No. 32, but then suffered an injury (hamstring) and was unable to even walk on my own. I was on a wheelchair and needed support while walking. I underwent an operation and thereafter slipped to No. 78," said Sharath, who first picked up a TT racquet when he was four. Troubles weren't just limited to the table. TT not being a popular sport in the country, many still didn't take him seriously.
"Back then, sport was always an extra-curricular activity, so it was never easy. When I won the Commonwealth Games gold (in 2006), I used to be asked questions like, 'What are you studying' or advice like, 'It's very important to get higher education.' Nowadays, things have changed. People accept that sport is also a profession and you can make a living out of it," added Sharath. From his maiden conquest in the 2003 National Championship till today, Sharath has been resilient in his comebacks. "In 2016, I wanted to play in the Olympics because I didn't make it for the 2012 edition. In this year's CWG as well, I want to win gold. It's small goals here and there that keep me going," he said.
More youngsters, please
There is a realisation though that the youngsters, sooner or later, will take over. "We need more players like me to build the sport. It cannot be just one Sharath Kamal winning everything. I was a poster boy 10 years ago and somehow, till today, I still happen to lead the way in the sport, but hopefully the youngsters will take things ahead from me," he explained, adding that currently, it's G Sathyan (World No. 50) who's the highest ranked Indian as opposed to him (World No. 53). While the battle to keep going at the TT table rages on for Sharath, there's another sweet tussle that the paddler faces around the dining table at home - his retirement discussion.
"My future depends on how long my wife, Sripoorni, continues to support me in my profession. My daughter, Suyasha is seven, and nowadays questions me whenever I'm away for a tournament. It depends on how long my wife can handle this. "It's like how Federer said, 'The day my wife says pack up, it's time to leave!' It's the same here. It's whatever my home ministry says," added Sharath, who has a five-month old son, Tejas. So, will the kids follow in their father's footsteps?
"No," said Sharath firmly, going on to explain his reason: "Because there will always be comparisons between them and me. They will always be in my shadow, which I think is unfair to them."
"We should be able to win gold because the team is pretty strong. We are currently ranked 10 in the world which is our highest ever," Sharath said. "We will face stiff competition from England, Nigeria and Singapore. We have a fair chance of winning gold in doubles as well," he added.