TOP-SPIN, HIS WAY TO THE TOP

When it mattered, Sharath Kamal used his forehand and backhand top-spins to tremendous effect, writes K. Keerthivasan.

"He's the ultimate, I have no other words to describe Sharath Kamal's feat. What he has done is phenomenal," said N. Arul Selvi, a former International women's paddler, and a good friend of Sharath. Selvi has pretty much summed up Sharath's achievement in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

In a see-saw final, Sharath defeated William Henzell of Australia in seven games, becoming the first Indian to win an individual table tennis gold medal in the Games. "It's a nice feeling since a lot of people expected this win from me. In fact the whole TT fraternity in India wanted me to win," said Sharath to Sportstar.

It was not an easy path to the final for the 23-year-old Administrative and Welfare Officer of the Indian Oil Corporation, seeded third in the event, and ranked 151 in the world. He overcame Jason Sugrue of Northern Ireland in the second round and then defeated Andrew Rushton of England. Against Cai Xiao Li of Singapore in the quarterfinals, Sharath went on to win in six games. But after a suprisingly easy win over defending champion Segun Moses Toriola of Nigeria in the semifinals, many expected Sharath to wallop Henzell. In his maiden final of a major championship, Sharath got nervous, and his eyes revealed it. "I was nervous throughout the match," he said. "If you have seen the final, I didn't show any excitement after the win. I felt relieved." Pressure seemed to get the better of Sharath after he won the first game. He missed short balls and committed service errors. But when it mattered, Sharath used his forehand and backhand top-spins to tremendous effect.

Henzell is no ordinary player. Having settled in Sweden, the 24-year-old, with a ranking of 203, plays defence and attack with equal felicity. He jumped into the spotlight by upseting the top-seed Yang Zi of Singapore in four straight games in the quarterfinals. "He puts a lot of spin in his shots from both flanks, and the ball skids on the table," said Sharath.

After Sharath lunged forward to put away a forehand shot on his third match point, he hugged Henzell, who apparently said, "You deserved it."