At the age of 35, India’s star paddler Sharath Kamal hasn’t shown signs of calling it a day. Ranked 48 in the world in men's singles, Sharath has already set his eyes on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Arriving at the Chennai Airport on Tuesday to a tumultuous welcome after bagging three medals (men’s team gold, men’s singles bronze and men’s doubles silver with G. Sathiyan) in the recently concluded Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Sharath spoke to Sportstar on India’s best-ever showing (eight medals) at the Games, on the fabulous show by Manika Batra, on dealing with pressure as the top seed in the men’s team event, and on the new International Table Tennis Federation rankings, among other things.
This was India’s best-ever CWG. How was the experience?
It was great. After the women won the team gold, there was immense pressure on us. Had England been in the final, it would have been difficult, for England has depth. They have good players in [Paul] Drinkhall, Samuel [Walker], [Liam] Pitchford. I don’t know when we will win next time, a twin gold medal in men’s and women’s team events.
Even though 2006 Melbourne Games will remain special as I won my first team and singles gold, Gold Coast will also be right there at the top. Coming in as a seasoned player and taking the team along was an experience in itself. We were the favourite and hence there was a lot of pressure. Moreover, in the last edition at Glasgow, we didn’t perform well (only one silver in men’s doubles). The lone [minor] crib is that I have won a medal in every category except mixed doubles in the Games. If I had not won the bronze in singles in Gold Coast, then I would put the men's doubles silver as a disappointment. The singles bronze medal gave me a lot of satisfaction to the whole CWG experience. No doubt, it was a great Games for us.
On the bronze medal match against England’s Samuel Walker?
I wanted to win the match, as it would have been a happy ending. I am happy that I was able to do that. Our coach [Massimo Costantini] said 'don’t play for yourself or for me, just think of the billions of people, who want the medal. Take it in the larger interest [of the sport]. That’s how you can motivate yourself.' My coach and uncle [Muralidhara Rao] always tells me that.
Do you think India has improved as a TT nation since the last CWG in 2014?
Yes, at the CWG level, we have become a stronger nation. We were the top seed in the men’s team event and in the men’s singles, Sathiyan was seeded two and I was fourth. That is because everybody is playing well. Earlier, I was the only one. Now Sathiyan, Harmeet [Desai], Sanil Shetty and Amalraj have come up in the rankings. Hence, the team ranking has gone up. Also, it is because of the new ranking system [that came into force in January this year].
Has the new ranking system been disadvantageous for you?
I need to be more active. But what I have figured out is that in the tournaments that I play, I need to do well.
Read: India ends action-packed campaign with 66 medals
On the semifinal loss to Nigeria's Quadri Aruna.
He was fresher than me. He didn’t play in the team event, he lost early in the men’s doubles. He didn’t play in mixed doubles whereas I was playing in all the events. He was a wee bit sharper than me. Actually, in the head to head rankings with Aruna, I was leading 3-0 before the semifinals. I last beat him in the World team championships in 2016 in the quarterfinals. Since then he has improved a lot.
Gao Ning at 35 years won the men’s singles gold?
Probably the [intense] training he had at the younger age has helped him. But, the average age of the medal winner in CWG singles is 33. Gao Ning is 35, Aruna is nearing 30, myself 35. It is becoming like that at the world level, too. where Timo Boll (ranked second in the world) is 37 years. [Vladimir] Samsanov is 40 and is in the top 40. If you are able to be physically fit, the game is prolonging you till you are 40. I am looking at 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I am not looking at 2022 CWG. If I maintain my physique, sharpen my skills, I am sure to be there. I can reach the top 30 in the world, If I play reasonably well in the world team championships in [Halmstad] Sweden later this month.
Also read: Sharath beats Walker, wins bronze
You have played in four editions of the Games from 2006. How has the standard been?
The level has been pretty constant at CWG. In the last edition, however, Singapore was superior as it got in a lot of Chinese and they proved to be unbeatable. While other countries are growing, India is improving rapidly. Thanks to Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu, Sports Authority of India, TTFI, and the Ultimate Table Tennis League with top foreign players, the sport is growing well. We had more exposure by playing a lot of tournaments abroad [in 2017]. All this has helped.
Any misses in CWG?
No disappointments at all.
On Manika Batra stealing the show at CWG.
It is thanks to Peter Engel, who came as India's foreign coach in 2014. He made her play a lot on forehands. And the result is there for all to see. She is now more aggressive on the forehand, and it was Engel who transformed her game. She was a very big surprise in the CWG. To beat three Singaporeans in the women’s singles is no joke, and beating World No. 4 Feng Tianwei twice [in team and singles] was unbelievable.
On what to expect in the Asian Games?
[It will be] very very difficult. It depends on the draw. We were close to beating Japan in the Asian championship last year. If we don’t get China in the quarterfinals, there is a possibility to bag a medal. We are underdogs. The odds are against us.
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