The fragrance of victory is doubly sweet

Sharath explains how important the Government's support is for his future plans, among other things, in this interview to The Sportstar.

K. KEERTHIVASAN

Sharath Kamal, the men's champion, sharing the podium with Singapore's Xu Yan during the presentation ceremony. — Pic. AP-

WHAT is India's standing in the world of table tennis now? How are Indian paddlers placed in the world arena? What has India's record been in the Asian Games, Commonwealth, World championship and Olympics over the last two decades in singles? A commoner would perhaps reply, "What are you talking about?" A table tennis fan (a dying species), would probably say, "Hey, it's downright pathetic."

It is in this scenario that the victory achieved by India's Achanta Sharath Kamal should be seen. Though India's record in the Commonwealth championship has been creditable, champion tag eluded the Indians. The 23-year-old, employed as an Officer (Administration & Welfare) with the Indian Oil Corporation, scripted history as he came up with a splendid performance to bag the Commonwealth championship title at Kuala Lumpur recently, becoming the first Indian to do so. The closest any Indian had come to winning the coveted title were Kamlesh Mehta (finalist in 1991), Mir Kasim Ali (finalist in 1971) and Chetan Baboor (finalist in 2001). Three-time National champions Manjit Dua and V. Chandrasekar reached the semifinals in 1982.

A diligent worker, self-effacing, Sharath is liked by one and all for his down-to earth nature and refreshing frankness. He is, without doubt, a role model for any aspiring paddler.

A relatively obscure player in the juniors at the National level, it was in 2001 that Sharath burst into the State senior scene winning all the Tamil Nadu State-ranking titles at stake. Asked to participate in the Commonwealth Games camp at Ajmer in March 2002, Sharath grabbed the chance. Crossing swords with S. Raman, Soumyadeep Roy, Subhajit Saha and Sourav Chakraborthy for the first time in a National camp, Sharath learnt the nuances. He still considers that camp as a turning point in his career.

Sharath, the National champion, is currently shuttling his time between practising at his club — YMIA (Mylapore, Chennai) and Office. Knowing pretty well that winning a match would be tough at Olympics, Sharath, the lone Indian male paddler at Athens, sees it as a stepping stone. He has set higher ambition — that of winning a medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Sharath explains how important the Government's support is for his future plans, among other things, in this interview to The Sportstar.

Question: What do the Commonwealth championship golds (team and individual events) mean to you? With what frame of mind did you go for the individual events considering that you performed below expectations in the team event?

Answer: It's really great as it is for the first time that India is winning two gold medals. We did not expect such a good performance. In the individual events, I never thought that I would meet Alan Cooke (a former champion) so soon (pre-quarterfinals). I know I had to work over the bad patch. Cooke knows my game very well and moreover is a `sticky' player, who forces you to commit mistakes. This time, I was prepared for more rallies. He did not expect me to change my game.

Could you describe the final against Soumyadeep Roy?

I went with the right frame of mind that I didn't see what was happening around me. I could see only the ball. I was in total focus. Whenever I see the match in video I would like to see my eyes — they were so strong. Soumyadeep was not able to clear me. It was as if I was talking to the ball. I hope it happens every time.

Sharath Kamal with his collection of medals and trophies. -- Pic. K. V. SRINIVASAN-

How has the Commonwealth win changed your game, style and technique?

The main thing, for the last two years, is I am getting confident with each day. It has to do with my mindset. I am exploring new things and it is working out for me. I am quicker. So I have the confidence to try more. The problem starts the day when things don't work for me. I hope that day doesn't come (laughs).

Do you think it is possible for Indian paddlers to do well at the international level? What do they lack?

It is mainly to do with the mental attitude. We Indians are satisfied with a decent job, handsome pay. Everybody is settling down for that. Nobody aims to hit high in the game. There is nobody to show the way. Problems partly lie with us. Indians go into an international match praising the foreign players, their infrastructure, and their practice. By doing this, first we lose confidence, then we lose trust in ourselves. When you go into a match wondering whether you can win, then half the battle is lost. We need to have that spirit `I can do it.' Also we don't have that level of fitness.

Do you think support and infrastructure are not upto the mark for table tennis in India?

Support has increased compared to what my predecessors had. We have a lot of European tours. Things have changed. Infrastructure is getting better.

What do you think is the difference between Indians, Europeans and the Chinese?

Mindset. We know to manipulate the game. But they are better because of technique, mental and physical soundness. It is not because Chinese play more intelligently. They play like machines, and hence commit fewer mistakes. Their strength is total focus and dedication. Nothing else matters for them. They play in a positive manner. They have been training scientifically for a very long time while we do not. I still do not know what all is needed to be a champion. It is really easy for them for the path is already laid.

You had said that you were keen to play in Pro-Tours. Has anything changed?

No. I have got an offer from Sweden to play for a first division club called Enig. September 14 will be my first match. Though the club sponsors me, I would like to play in Pro-Tours near Europe. For that I need Government support. I am going to ask for Government support because financially it will be very difficult for me to sustain.

You reached the final of the 2002 National championship, won the Qatar under-21 Open, won your maiden 2003 National championship and now the Commonwealth. Has it been a dream run for you?

At home with his parents -- Srinivasa Rao and Annapoorna. -- Pic. K. V. SRINIVASAN-

Yes, it's been a dream run for me. In fact, my first National championship final where I lost to S. Raman in 2002 was the start of many good things. After the 2002 National championship (held in Jan. 2003), I officially represented India in the Asian championship at Bangkok in February. I won the Qatar under-21 Open and then participated in the world championship in Paris, then won my first National championship. It has been boom time.

Now that you have become the Commonwealth champion, where do you go from here? What are your realistic goals?

While setting ambitions, I don't think you should be modest. Setting ambitions should be high. I am aiming for a medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I know I have to work very hard. For that I need to train with the Chinese and Europeans. I need to know their tactics, see them train and change my techniques accordingly. I cannot do that sitting here. I should go to Europe for training. Government support is important if I have to play Pro-Tours.

There will be more expectations now... How are you going to deal with them?

Even if the pressure is more, I have to cope with it; there is no other way. I cannot say `please don't expect this or that from me'. Instead, I aim to do better. What I am going to do is take the pressure from the environment and apply the pressure on myself. I am doing it for myself — that releases the pressure. In that way my commitment will be more.

What do you think are the roadblocks for a promising paddler in India to flourish?

The main reason is probably they don't aim so high. Again it's all in the mind. Things have changed for the better now. The prize money has been increased for the National championship; there is a 10 per cent hike in prize money. It is a healthy sign. But getting a job is very difficult. One can make it to the State team or to the top 16 at the Nationals. Not everybody can make it to the top four. Institutions should offer jobs. If one wants to take table tennis as a career, he/she should make it to the top otherwise there is no future.

What roles have your father (Srinivasa Rao) and uncle (Muralidhara Rao) played in your career?

As coaches, I trust them 100 per cent. They have groomed me. They suggest ideas but never force me to do things. I am given a free hand. They have always been by my side.

Who are the players you would like to emulate?

Belarus' Vladimir Samsonov — we are both of the same height. He plays the game as if table tennis is one of the easiest games. He plays so effortlessly, nobody can pass him very easily. I would like people to say, `nobody can pass him (Sharath).' I also look up to eight-time National champion Kamlesh Mehta when it comes to dedication and Raman ("he is a fitness freak") for his fitness.