‘Not today, not yet’: Sharath Kamal sets sights on 2024 Paris Olympics after strong show against Ma Long

A. Sharath Kamal was at his best physical and mental shape during the match against reigning Olympic champion Ma Long. His performance in Tokyo, where he reached the third round in the men's singles, has made him have a rethink about his retirement plans.

Sharath Kamal Achanta in action against Ma Long of China during the men's singles third round at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday.   -  Reuters

After ending his fourth Olympic appearance by making the defending gold medallist Ma Long of China sweat it out in the men’s singles third round, A. Sharath Kamal, the torch-bearer of Indian table tennis for almost two decades, looks back on his exploits in Tokyo and assures that he is not ready to hang up his boots yet.

How would you sum of the last eight to 10 days?

I said before leaving for the Olympic Games also that this will be my best Olympic Games because I am in the best physical and mental shape. And I proved that to be right. Of course, I didn't win the match today. The way I played against Ma Long and you know, the way I was able to corner him and put that pressure on him, I am really happy to get into that space.

READ: Sharath Kamal loses to Ma Long 4-1 in third round

Also, the second round going against Tiago (Apolonia) - I beat him after almost 15 years. I was losing to him in the Bundesliga and World Cup and some other international matches also. But now I am really happy with the way I performed. Of course, if there is something that could have been changed, then I would say it’s just my preparation and the way I came into the Olympic Games.

I think despite the difficult times in India - the coronavirus, the second wave and travel restrictions ( I couldn’t go to Europe to prepare), whatever best possible ways we had with the situation, I did make use of it. And I am really happy that I have come this far at this point of my career.

Did you feel you had a grip on the match against the mighty Ma Long?

I always thought I had the grip on the match. Even when I lost the first set, I still felt like I still have it (in my grasp). Second set, I got a bit nervous when I was 8-4 up. I felt like things are working, things are coming up and I lost my concentration a little bit there. I took a time-out and got to win that set. And then in the third set, Ma Long - I put him under so much pressure that he actually had to take time out before converting that game. This was exactly what I was telling the coach (Soumyadeep) Roy: “He is shaking now, I need to convert this. This is the right time. I need to convert it”. I got him cornered. but, unfortunately, I couldn’t nail him there. Probably I’ll have to wait for another three years before I do that.

“It looks like I still have it in me...I’ll have to pick and choose. I will have to have my motivation set right. I need to go in for the tournaments where I feel good. Why I want to go into the next Olympic Games is because if we qualify for the team championship, we stand a fair chance in the Olympics.”

How would you sum up the overall performance of the Indian contingent?

Strong contingent, it’s the strongest we have ever had. And I think the performance was also the best we have ever done at the Olympic Games, so I am really happy for everybody. (G.) Sathiyan started off well but it is unfortunate that he couldn’t convert that match. It was Sutirtha’s (Mukherjee) first Olympic Games. Looking at her matches, it didn’t look like it was a first call-up again. She just went in and won that match from being down 1-3.

And Manika playing round three at the Olympic Games is phenomenal. Even I hadn’t done it until today. I have done it after four Olympic Games. I think table tennis has been rapidly doing well. And I hope we continue to do well like this.

Since we are on this topic, are you hinting at you are ready to pass the baton on to Sathiyan and Manika?

Not today, not yet. I know my family will not be happy with the decision. But it looks like I still have it in me. Because for the 2024 Olympic Games, I would be playing the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, which is just one year from now. From tomorrow, I think it will be 365 days for the Commonwealth Games. So, one year will just pass very fast. There aren’t many tournaments and time will just go very fast. And then from the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, it’s going to be another six months to one year for the Olympic qualifiers to come up, where we will actually try and qualify for the team event. That’s where we stand a good chance to win a medal in the next Olympic Games.

I’ll have to pick and choose. I will have to have my motivation set right. I need to go in for the tournaments where I feel good. And again, why I want to go into the next Olympic Games is because if we qualify for the team championship, we stand a fair chance in the Olympics. So, I think I’ll have to categorically choose what will be the priority and work around it.

Would you like to talk about the off-the-table issues that have kept the table tennis contingent in the news?

No, not really. You know, that was very, very disturbing. For me, during the Olympic Games, people around me and the whole table tennis fraternity is always so much (in touch), so I had to really shut it out for myself to keep focus on the game. Table tennis has always made it to the news for the right reasons. And for me, personally, I want to just stay away from these kinds of controversy. So, I really don’t want to speak anything about it.

READ| Tokyo 2020: What went wrong with table tennis? Manika Batra spells out

Hopefully, all the dust will settle before all of you get into the Asian Championship (in September-October) preparations, right?

It looks a little bit more difficult than, you know, as we think. It’s a lot easier when people just sit down and sort it out. If you don’t sort it out, it’s going to be more and more difficult in the coming times. So more than the Asian Championships or the World Championships, I think we’ll have to look into Commonwealth Games and Asian Games where we have a chance for the medals, and we cannot let anything of this tamper our preparations or focus.

Can we hope to see you back in action very soon?

Yeah, Asian and World Championships are coming up in September and November. They are going to be team championships, so we’ll have to get the team up again. At this point in time, there is so much focus on the Olympics, so it’s just mixed doubles and singles. Now again, we’ll have to try and build a team and go into that mode. That’s going to be a bit challenging because of the fact that we haven’t played any matches for almost one and half years.

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