“He has to be managed properly. Fitness, practice, activity outside India – we need a plan for Sharath. He needs to work on a slightly different mentality because his skills are not the same as they were four-five years ago. At the same time, he is more mature than he was back then, so we need to make a plan considering all these aspects and I believe Sharath will soon give a huge reason to celebrate for the country.”
Massimo Costantini, the former India table tennis head coach, had this to say about Sharath Kamal in June 2017.
Cut to August 2022. With his best performance at a multi-disciplinary event, winning three gold medals and a silver at the Commonwealth Games, Sharath, now 40, continues to give India reasons to rejoice. Sporting a blue jersey and blue shorts, and matching the colour with his trademark bandana, Sharath displayed his A game from start to finish in Birmingham.
His feat underlined his stature as one of India’s greats in table tennis. Having won a dozen medals in five editions of the Commonwealth Games and a record 10 National Championships, Sharath shows no signs of stopping.
Days after he was India’s flagbearer at the closing ceremony in Birmingham, we met Sharath at his parents’ home in Chennai to better understand how his love for the game has fuelled his longevity and made him a legend. It’s the same home where, a little over two decades ago as a confused teenager, Sharath decided to make the sport his profession.
“Perhaps that is the secret of my longevity,” he spells out, with his mother listening to him intently.
“I was a late-bloomer. I was never touring (for India) or winning so much at a young age, so the drive to excel came only after the age of 20-21. My longevity may have had something to do with it. I kept believing in myself at a stage when most of them would have given up and opted for another profession.”
Sharath has often said that the majority of paddlers in India in the age-group of 18 to 22 give up the sport competitively, regardless of their success in the sport.
Sportstar has tracked his journey from when he was an also-ran on the national circuit to the present day. In the early years it was common to hear seniors who were tracking promising youngsters across India refer to him as “the next big thing.” “Watch out for a kid from Madras who hits 1,000 multi-balls every day,” they would say.
Adapting to change
The most common feature among champions across various walks of life is their constant urge to upgrade themselves. Sharath is no different. He is the only active paddler in India to have coped with various transitions in the sport over the last quarter of a century.
Be it the change in size of the ball – the diameter was increased from 38 mm to 40 mm soon after Sharath’s junior days – or an altered points system – it was no longer played over 21 points – or the change of equipment and technique, or the recent adoption of seamless plastic balls, Sharath has found a way to embrace them and excel.
Thanks to his desire to succeed, he executed a newly-acquired skill to perfection in Birmingham: the backhand flick over the table while receiving. “I realised that to cope with the trends in the game, I had to add it to my armoury. I never played the stroke all these years but incorporated it with an eye on Commonwealth Games and beyond. In doubles, we got a lot of points with the stroke,” he says.
The inability to adapt to change in techniques has proved to be a bane for Sharath in the past. It contributed to a five-year period of underachievement that started in 2011 and ended with a career-threatening hamstring injury in 2015. On either side of the dark phase are two glorious ones.
“I was on a roll from 2005 till 2010. When I won the Egypt Open in 2010, I thought that would be my peak at the London Olympics. I would have been around 30. But everything went downhill 2011 onwards. I couldn’t adapt to the fast-changing techniques and suffered as a result. I couldn’t even qualify for London. My ranking slipped to as low as 94 and everything was bleak. Here I am now, playing my best table tennis at the age of 40.”
For any professional player in racquet sports, being at the peak at 40 is a big deal. Contrary to public perception, an individual sportsperson needs a strong team to help him achieve his objectives.
Sharath showers all the praise on his team – younger brother Rajath, his personal coach; Ramji Srinivasan, his strength-and-conditioning coach; and sports psychologist Gayatri Vartak. “For me to incorporate new techniques, I need to find motivation for everyday practice. It all depends on my coach, my mental coach and fitness coach to help me break the barriers,” he says. Together, they have definitely broken the barriers.
“As a younger player, I used to cover the table with my forehand. Now the shuffle has become slower. (Paul) Drinkhall of England exposed it very well (in the men’s singles semifinal). If I can get some amount of stability in my shots and move in and hit my shots, that would be great. It is like converting my fitness into a skill. That is where I need work,” says Sharath.
Sharath’s preparations for Birmingham started towards the end of 2021, soon after he underwent a medical procedure on his injured heel. Having struggled to cope with the rigours of playing back-to-back matches in singles, men’s doubles and mixed doubles at Gold Coast in 2018, Sharath was ready with a plan.
“I knew the mental and physical fatigue that I was going to go through, so I needed to train accordingly. The training started in January. The plan was that my first peak should be between March and April when there were a couple of [World Table Tennis] events and the National Championship,” he says. It was executed to precision, Sharath lifted his 10th National Championship title.
“Then the second peak at the end of July. I didn’t want to peak in a few tournaments prior to Commonwealth Games. I knew I was not so young to peak twice within a month. To accept it is okay. I wanted to get my match sharpness, strategies and progressive mentalities during the match. Everything came together and especially the periodisation came out very well.”
The planning worked perfectly as Sharath marked the fortnight with a historic treble. India defended a Commonwealth Games table tennis gold for the first time, with the men’s team winning the title. Then came the surprise mixed doubles title with Sreeja Akula. And the crowning glory came on the last day when he beat World No. 20 Liam Pitchford in the men’s singles final to regain the singles gold after 16 years.
“Probably, 2022 Commonwealth Games was the best two weeks of my career for the level I played and the consistency I had throughout the tournament from the first till the last day. Moreover, it was my ability to have the spirit and energy high, and my strength to keep my mind, body and soul working in tandem, that was the key to my success,” he says.
It helped that Rajath and Vartak were with him in Birmingham. While Rajath travelled to Birmingham on his own, Vartak was a part of India’s table tennis contingent. Sharath informs us that “the only Indian discipline to have a travelling mental coach in Birmingham was table tennis.”
It was a necessity, considering the change in the Indian table tennis administrative set-up over the last 12 months and a plethora of selection controversies in the lead-up to the Games. In addition to taking Vartak’s help, Sharath relied on the learnings from his Bundesliga stint.
While representing Borussia Dusseldorf with legendary left-hander Timo Boll as his team-mate, Sharath observed how Boll was focussed on delivering what was expected of him. “Even if there is no harmony in the team, he would win his match and go. That’s the best you could do. I learnt a lesson from him, so I told myself ‘I will just do my things as I should do it’ instead of trying to think ‘what will be the best in the situation for everybody’. Glad it has worked,” he says. No conversation with Sharath can end without discussing when his retirement would come.
“Too much is made of my age. I am still one of the fittest in the team,” he says. Helping India qualify as a team and then win a medal at the Paris Olympic in 2024, he declares, is his next big target.
But he wants to balance it out on the domestic front as well. He realises that due to his playing commitments, he has had little time for his family – wife Sripoorni, daughter Suyasha, and son Tejas.
“My wife says ‘I haven’t signed up for single parenting’. While winning a medal at Paris 2024 is my immediate target, I haven’t thought about the 2026 Commonwealth Games. My wife is doing all the family duties. I should take these factors into consideration. I will take two years at a time,” he says.
Sharath has defied age, predictions and doomsday scenarios.
Irrespective of a medal in the Paris Olympics, Sharath will go down in history as one of India’s best. A medal at Paris will, however, be a perfect end to his glittering career.