Aiming to break into the big league

R. V. MOORTHY

The Austrian Open, the French Open, the German Open and a series of ITTF Pro Tour events beginning in the last week of October will be crucial as Sharath Kamal attempts to break into the top 50 in the world.

Though he prefers Continental food, Sharath Kamal has been enjoying some rare Korean fare these days. His recent triumph at the Pyongyang International in North Korea and his surprise victory over South Korea’s World No. 19, Lee Jung Woo, in the Japan Open a few weeks ago have pepped up the Indian table tennis star’s confidence. “Getting into the world top 50 within the next six to seven months is my goal now,” said the Commonwealth Games champion.

With this goal in mind, Sharath now plans to extend his stay in Madrid, where he plays for the San Sebastian club in the Spanish League. “Earlier, I used to take short three-month visas but now I want to stay longer, close to a year. There are a lot of tournaments happening in Europe, and you get to play for 10 months, mostly during weekends,” said Sharath, ranked World No. 80.

The next few months will offer Sharath a good chance to break into the big league. The Austrian Open in Wels, the French Open in Toulouse, the German Open in Bremen and a series of ITTF Pro Tour events beginning in the last week of October, will be crucial.

“I know the climb will be tougher now but Europe suits my style and I have a better chance there,” said Sharath, who is an Assistant Manager with the IndianOil Corporation, based in Chennai.

Unlike the Chinese, the Europeans generally play away from the table. “I like to mix both styles depending upon my opponent,” said Sharath.

So, what does he do against the all-conquering Chinese? Use their style against them?

“No, that would be dangerous. You can try the European style, anything against them, but not their style.”

Sharath loves the European tables. “The ball bounces higher there and since I’m tall, it suits me fine,” said the six-foot-two-inch paddler. “It skids a lot on Indian tables and sometimes it takes a little time to adjust when I play at home.”

Life in Europe is often lonely for Sharath. “It’s tough and I don’t go around much. You need company to go around,” he said.

Is the money big in the European circuit?

“The money is not much, we just break even. And every European club has a Chinese player. In India, the money is good if you win international tournaments. But for the second line of players, there is very little,” said Sharath.

Top flight table tennis these days is all about speed. “The game has changed a lot, it’s very fast and fitness is a major factor. And the Koreans are the fittest in the world,” said Sharath. That’s another reason why the victories against the Koreans give him a lot of satisfaction.

Sharath is a keen observer and a quick learner. Three years ago, he suffered a crushing defeat against Lee Jung Woo in Chile. A little later, he watched Belgian Jean-Michel Saive controlling the Korean by constantly attacking his backhand. That lesson came in handy for Sharath when he played Lee Jung in the Japan Open recently.

How does he prepare before big matches? Does he meditate?

“Meditation has never been my cup of tea. I just try to stay calm, try to focus on how I’m going to play.”

Stan Rayan * * * Top honour for Kaka

Brazil and AC Milan midfielder Kaka was chosen as Player of the Year on October 5 by the professional soccer players union FIFPro and selected to its World XI, the organisation announced in Hoofddorp, Netherlands.

Kaka was selected by FIFPro’s 57,700 members worldwide. The organisation did not give a vote tally.

On the World XI, Kaka was part of a three-man midfield with Manchester United and Portugal international Cristiano Ronaldo and England’s Steven Gerrard of Liverpool.

Italy and Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was joined by compatriots Alessandro Nesta of AC Milan and Fabio Cannavaro of Real Madrid in the back four along with England’s John Terry of Chelsea and Spain’s Carles Puyol of FC Barcelona.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Barcelona team-mate Ronaldinho and Chelsea’s Didier Drogba were chosen as the forwards.