You are 38, hoping to have one last shot at glory by first qualifying for what would be your fourth Olympics and then hoping for pulling off a miracle in Tokyo. You are getting into the groove, having put aside the disappointment of not qualifying for the first team championship in Olympics, and having won your first (International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Pro Tour title in 10 years in Oman in the middle of March.
A. Sharath Kamal couldn’t have asked for a better build-up ahead of what would have been an Olympics qualifier event in April. Until, of course, the time stood still, with the COVID-19 pandemic pushing most of the world — and all of India — indoors.
The veteran paddler spells out the difficulties in dealing with the unanticipated challenge the epidemic has thrown, on and off the table.
How are you, macha ?
I am just putting on weight. Can’t do much. The kids are driving us crazy. And there’s uncertainty about the outside world. What else can happen these days, you tell me (laughs) .
How much did the COVID-19 threat linger over the Oman Open, incidentally the last big event in ITTF that also turned out to be your first international title after a decade?
It was a huge factor right through the week. All of us players were sceptical about the disease being transmitted but somehow we saw through the week unscathed. My family was dead against me travelling to Oman for the tournament. They said there’s no need to take such a big risk. It took me real long to convince them that I have been training so hard for this one — and more importantly for the Olympic qualifiers which were then scheduled early April — I had to request them to let me go. Luckily I won the title. Had I not, I am not sure if they would have opened the door for me on my return.
It seems you have more than done your bit now. I am sure you had promised the kids to not go anywhere for two weeks after returning from Oman....
Hahaha, indeed. All of them were happy with it initially but I don’t know if three weeks down the line, they will ask me “ Kab jaa rahe ho (When are you leaving).” It’s pretty hard, yaar . Yes, the good thing is you are with them all the time, but on the flip side you just cannot do anything that either you or the kids want. These are difficult times.
Does anything come close to this experience?
Nothing, yaar . Don’t think anyone of us would have even thought about what’s happening right now. Yes, I was immobile for almost six months following my (hamstring) injury and the rehab (2015) but that was different. Despite being unable to do anything back then, I had something to look forward to. I had a goal to get back on my feet and go through the daily chores, and eventually get back on to the table. Right now, it seems as if life has come to a standstill. There’s so much uncertainty and we just don’t know when normalcy would be restored. Till then, it’s just about spending time with the family and enjoying it as much as you can.
So what can you do as an athlete in such a situation?
What can we do! That’s what. SAI (Sports Authority of India) asked me how could they help me in some way. They have been reaching out to all the top athletes. I told them there’s absolutely nothing that you can help us with. There’s no chance of we being able to train right now. When you are at home 24x7 in urban India, training goes for a toss. For the first couple of days, since you are excited, you do some videos about keeping yourself fit but that’s more of a gig for the Instagram feed than actual training. It doesn’t serve any other purpose. On top of it, the morale is down. You can’t go anywhere, can’t do anything that you want, you’ve been reading or watching only about one thing, so you don’t feel like doing anything. When I was injured, I, at least, had something to look forward to. Now I don’t know how long this will last.
Can you plan anything now that the Olympics has been postponed?
The Olympics was bound to be postponed because the Olympic movement just cannot observe social distancing. One of the hallmarks of Olympics is tens of thousands of athletes across the world eat together and mingle with each other. Now that main objective for the year has been deferred, which is good in the given circumstances. But there’s nothing in sight right now to set your eyes on. Earlier they had suspended the ITTF circuit till April end but now they have announced that the China Open and the Hong Kong Open — the two big events scheduled in May — have been cancelled, so that’s also gone. It was expected, but now that it’s formal and there’s no need for an Olympics qualifier event which may have been slotted end of May, I doubt if we’ll play a tournament until August. UTT (Ultimate Table Tennis, franchise-based league in India which was earlier scheduled to start right after the Olympics in August) was supposed to be the last tournament of a hectic season, and now it could well begin the next cycle.
So how are you coping with this situation?
It’s very difficult, yaar , especially to keep yourself motivated. To begin with, I don’t know when am I going to play a tournament next. So, to keep myself motivated is the hardest part.
I also personally don’t know how to go about it. I’ve been thinking about it and at times I feel it’s best to stop thinking about it, enjoy the break, spend time with the kids and wait for normalcy to return. But even then, it’s not really a holiday. At times, when you’re on a break, you want to do certain things or the kids want you to do something they like.
During my break, I would like to do a light sport or take the kids out for a swim but all that’s just impossible for the time being.
What have you been doing for the last couple of weeks?
Absolutely nothing. Just eating. Putting on weight. You know I have a tendency to put on weight. For the time being, I have given myself the next two weeks to do what I want and then figure out the next course of action. Probably the world would have also figured a way out by then.
You haven’t had a hit on the table since your return from Oman?
No. I don’t have a table at home. My parents’ home (where his younger brother Rajat also resides) has a table, so only today did I jokingly tell my daughter, “Let me go over there and have a hit,” and she said: “No way. What will we do here then!”
How are the kids responding?
They are fine. My daughter know the risks and she understands the importance of staying indoors. Tejas (two-and-a-half-years old) is too young to understand it, so he wants to step out all the time. It’s a little bit hard, but we have to manage it, just like the rest of the world.
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