'My target is London 2012'

VINO JOHN

K. KEERTHIVASAN chatted with India's Commonwealth Games hero about success in Melbourne, his Olympic and World Championship DREAMS, fame and recognition, and on being the future hope of Indian table tennis.

For a fortnight since claiming the team and individual gold medals in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, paddler Sharath Kamal did little else except give interviews. "I have not cooked anything in the house," says Sharath's mother Annapoorna, when Sportstar caught up with him at his residence. "I have been busy attending calls."

Even as the telephone keeps his mother busy, a photographer from a Tamil magazine stretches Sharath's patience for the "right photograph." A tired Sharath says, "I might as well go into acting."

If he had been serious, the celebrations of Indian table tennis would have been short-lived. The sport has, for a long time, been in the state of inertia and it has come alive now thanks to Sharath.

After Chetan P. Baboor, who made quite a significant mark in singles at the international level, Sharath, 23, will now have to carry India's expectations.

"I LIKE TO WATCH my younger brother Rajath Kamal (sitting to the left of Sharath Kamal with the parents flanking them) play because he has the same style as mine."-VINO JOHN

The man who works as an administrative and welfare officer with the Indian Oil Corporation is ready for the big challenge.

Excerpts of the interview:

Congratulations on winning two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. Do you think you could continue to win medals in the international arena?

Yes. I want to win medals at the World Championship and the Olympics. I have to work hard to get there and I am willing to do it. We have to believe in what we are doing. I have been doing well at the higher level in the last three or four years. If I continue in the same way I should be in the top 100. The Asian Championship in February 2003, the first official championship in which I represented India in the senior category, was the turning point of my career. In the team championship, I was unbeaten though I played as No. 3 behind Soumyadeep Roy and Subhajit Saha. It all started from there. Then I won the Qatar Under-21 title, entered the World Championship main draw of 128, when I was ranked 296, and went on to win the National Championship for the first time.

What about the view that the Commonwealth Games did not have much competition, and hence winning was not a big achievement?

I wouldn't say that table tennis is not a big sport in England, Canada, Australia and Nigeria. England had a strong side five or six years ago. It had Desmond Douglas and Matthew Syed in the top 50. The Commonwealth Games always was of a very good standard. Now, the Chinese have started to immigrate to different places. In fact, the top two seeds of Singapore are from China. Nigeria too is strong. I think this is the first time the country lost in the semifinals, ever since I have been seeing them. In the 2001 Commonwealth Men's Championship in New Delhi, Nigeria defeated India in the final, and in the 2002 Games in Manchester, Nigeria lost to England in the men's final.

At the moment, you are the highest-ranked Indian in the world at 131. But Chetan Baboor had been ranked higher than that before you. Is it possible for you to break into the top 100 by the end of 2006?

Yes. I am on top at the moment. Chetan was ranked 73. If I get to play more pro tours and international events this year, for which I need financial support, I should be in the top 100 this year. Talking about support, the amount to be received from the government will be enough maybe this year or next year. But I need more money in the long run. I have set myself the goal of winning a medal at the 2012 Olympic Games because I will be around 28 or 29 then, and at my peak. Indians peak late, while the Chinese peak early at 21 and retire at 27. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I will definitely try my best. But then I am a bit far away from my goal. I expect some miracles to happen.

When you were called for a service fault in the sixth game at 7-7 in the final against William Henzell you got upset and lost the game. What was going on in your mind then?

I had come up with a fast, quick serve and got the point as the ball hit the edge of Henzell's racquet and went out. That was the first fast serve I had come up with in the whole match. That's when I thought, "What am I to do now. I unleashed my best weapon and it's gone wrong." My service has generally been very good. I never had any problems with my serve. My coaches have always taught me that the serve is important. This is the first time that I have been issued a service fault without warning. Normally, an umpire gives a warning not in a crucial game but early in the match. I was anyway nervous and then this thing happened. I didn't want the final to go into the seventh game. At 7-8, on my serve, my hand was so stiff that my serve hit the net. I don't know if I can serve that way even if I want to.

Did you have a blast after the individual final?

No. The day I got my individual gold, I had to stay back for dope testing. All the medal winners have to give urine samples. I was so nervous that I was not able to give a urine sample. I was sitting for two hours and I was unable to give one. I got delayed for the closing ceremony. Later, I enjoyed with my schoolmates, collegemates and friends. I watched `Sholay' in my friend's house.

How has the win changed your personality and outlook?

It has shown me how people feel happy and proud when an Indian does well at the international level. It has given me a lot of pride. When somebody comes up and says `It's like my own son doing well', I feel very happy. What I am today is because of the sport. I want to repay the sport.

How do you plan to spend the Rs 40 lakhs from the State Government and Rs 20 lakhs from the Central Government?

I have been discussing this with the coaches. I have to invest the amount back into the game so that I become a better player. Only If I reinvest and play in a lot of tournaments can I go to the next level and get more money from the game.

How much importance will you attach to the National Championship?

The National Championship is a prestigious tournament for India. I am proud to say that I am the National champion. The Table Tennis Federation of India can get more sponsors by publicising the fact that I am playing the National Championship. It will be good to play against the youngsters. That way I'll learn something. The youngsters will have nothing to lose. I can guage for myself how I handle pressure. It will be a learning process. That's what I learnt in the Commonwealth Games final. Henzell was ranked 203, where as I was 151 then. Everybody knew that I was a better player. He had nothing to lose, he had the support of the home crowd. I knew if he wins the title he would be a hero, and if I lose I would lose everything.

The Indian team has come up with good results of late. Any reasons?

Team spirit. Except for Raman and Arup Basak, the rest are in the 17-23 age-group. All of us share a good rapport and are willing to work for ourselves and put in the required team effort. Also we have been getting a lot of exposure. We went to a lot of tournaments in Europe, partially financed by the Government of India, the rest taken care of by TTFI in 2004-05. In 2006, we went for training in China. TTFI has given us lot of exposure. I don't think any of my seniors would have got this kind of exposure. This has been the best time for the sport, and I am very happy to be a part of it.

Do you believe the Commonwealth performance will open the eyes of the Government, Public Sector and corporate to the sport?

Surely, this will give an opening. Thanks to the media, I have got a lot of coverage. People have started to regard me as a TT icon. I am recognised on the streets. With this victory, a lot of sponsors will be coming. I think the corporate sector, too, will get in. People are willing to spend money in the game. But we have to sustain our standards. A number of players must perform well, not just me.

Is an Olympic medal at Beijing an achievable goal?

As of now, it's far-fetched. But I am working for it. Miracles do happen. But London 2012 is my target.

* * * ROCKING SHARATH

Sharath Kamal developed interest in rock music from his close friend Arjun, and has been hooked to it ever since. "He (Arjun) has a rockband and he's a guitarist. I learnt to play the guitar from him. His brother Varun is a lead singer for the band. I was present for his first show," says Sharath. A great fan of A. R. Rahman, Sharath listens to English, Hindi and Tamil film songs with as much interest. Movies like Gladiator and Rocky have inspired him. "These films showed you could hold your grit under difficult conditions and emerge winner." He says he likes to watch his younger brother Rajath Kamal play. "That is because he has the same style as mine. He is one of my favourite players. I also like to see Devesh Karia, Sayan Paul Roy and Sanil Shetty."