55, more high-fives expected

"It feels nice to be in a place where no Indian was ranked before. There is still a mountain to climb," says Sharath.-

Sharath Kamal is the first Indian table tennis player to be ranked as high as 55 in World rankings. Gradually, he hopes to make the top 20. Here he chats with K. Keerthivasan.

One of the biggest challenges for India's top paddler Sharath Kamal came neither from his opponents nor from the administrators. It emerged in the form of glues. The International Table Tennis Federation's decision to bring in water-based glues after the 2008 Beijing Olympics presented a new problem for most of the players, including Sharath.

Used to speed glues over the years, Sharath struggled for quite some time. But, like a true champion, Sharath worked on his technique with the new glue and has now got used to it. While the 27-year-old's struggle to adapt to the water glue is apparently over, his drive to be the best he can be is far from finished. “My outlook on the game has changed. I have become fitter and am confident about my abilities than ever before,” he affirms.

In March this year, Sharath, a Deputy Manager (Administration) with IndianOil Corporation, became the first Indian to reach a World ranking of 55 after official listings came into force. Though it is said that Sudhir Phadke, K. Nagaraj and Sudhir Thackersey were ranked in the top 50 in the 1960s and 70s, when fewer countries played the game, there is no proper documentation to confirm this.

Sharath is confident of breaking into the top 50 soon. “It is possible to get into the top 50 this year, if all goes well, by July. I am planning to compete in at least five of the eight Pro-Tours before the Commonwealth Games,” he says.

In this interview with Sportstar, Sharath spoke about his desire to keep getting better and putting his best foot forward in the Commonwealth Games, among other things.

Question: This is the first time that an Indian paddler has reached a World ranking of 55. How does it feel?

Answer: Frankly, it's been a long wait. From the time of competing in the Beijing Olympics, I have been looking forward to breaking into the top 50. I can feel that my game is getting better. It feels nice to be in a place where no Indian was ranked before. There is still a mountain to climb.

Question: In fact, as you said, you should have reached this ranking earlier. There were a lot of fluctuations in your rankings. How difficult was the phase?

Answer: Yes. The changes in glue affected my game. I had to alter my technique. Even though my forehand was strong, I had to work on it. With the speed glue, you could expect your powerful forehand shot to remain a winner. With the water glue, it is not so. Moreover, I had three bad losses in 2008-09 that upset my well-laid plans. In the 2009 Indian Open, I lost to Iran's Mehran Ahadi in the pre-quarterfinals which pushed me down from a world ranking of 71 to 86. And in the German Open, I bowed out to Szymanski Filip of Poland and then lost to Paul Drinkhall of England in the Austrian Open.

Question: What can we expect from the Indian men's team and individually from Sharath Kamal in the coming Commonwealth Games in New Delhi?

Answer: We are expecting a silver in the team championship and in the men's singles event — that's the minimum. Also, we are expecting a medal in the men's doubles. Singapore is the strongest team. With Gao Ning and Yang Zi, Singapore is really tough. There is a lot of pressure from the Government and fans as we are the defending champion (in men's team and men's singles). But as you know, sport is not like that. It is unpredictable. But I think we should be able to handle the pressure.

Question: In the last Asian Championship in Lucknow, Indian men finished seventh. Does it mean that the Indian team is progressing well?

Answer: Yes, if you look at the top six teams — China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taipei, North and South Korea — all of them have a strong base in table tennis. The fact that we were able to beat Singapore — though Gao Ning wasn't there — to finish seventh is not a bad achievement. It's a decent finish.

Question: While you have defeated many players ranked higher than you, it has not been possible for you to defeat Gao Ning of Singapore. And he will be a key player in the Commonwealth Games...

Answer: Yes, I must have played him around 10 times and not even once have I been able to defeat him. He plays close to the table and hardly makes any unforced errors. He has a compact game. I need to do a lot of homework to beat him. From the time I lost to him in the 2007 Indian Open, I have kept losing to him. Perhaps, I have to do some video analysis of his game and come up with a strategy.

Question: The victory over World No. 23 Chen Weixing of Austria in the Qatar Open in February this year was your best and one that pushed your ranking to 55.

Answer: Yes, undoubtedly. I was keen to play him after losing to him in the Champions League in Austria in September 2009. There, I lost after having a match point. I was feeling very bad. In the Qatar Open, I was mentally prepared to take him on. What I have learnt is to stick to a strategy and never waver. Against Chen, I kept my cool and have realised the need to focus on each and every point. The win, needless to say, has boosted my confidence.

Question: You had said that your six-week training in Germany last August was really good. Can you elaborate?

Answer: The training helped me a lot. Playing with eight players ranked inside the top 60 in the world helped me focus on my game and improve on my physical aspects. I fine-tuned my forehand. I lost a lot of weight. The reward of the training was my performance in the English Open in October where I defeated World No. 44 Adrian Crisan of Romania.

Question: Your four-year contract with San Sebastian, a top division club in Spain, comes to an end now with only the play-off matches remaining. Are you extending the contract or are you looking forward to playing for any other club?

Answer: The experience with San Sebastian was good. It was the perfect European system where I played every week with top-ranked players. But now it looks like I will not be extending my contract. The first two years in Spain saw me improve tremendously. Now clubs prefer other foreign players to Indians. The situation is unclear now.

Question: Is it realistic to expect you to break into the top 20?

Answer: Yes, very much. That's what I am yearning for. Mentally, I have become more mature. I don't panic much. My best days are yet to come. The years when I will be at my peak will be between 29 and 32 years. So, the 2012 London Olympics will be the time when I will be peaking. I want to give my best.