World junior champion Tomokazu Harimoto was born in the year in which Sharath Kamal won the first of his seven National titles. Thirteen years later, the Japanese kid produced a performance that left 34-year old exasperated and ruing the opportunity to play the final of the USD 150,000 ITTF World Tour India Open table tennis tournament here.
In the semifinal, Harimoto won 11-7, 5-11, 11-7, 11-13, 11-9, 11-9 to set up the title-clash against top seed Dimitrij Ovtcharov, who survived two seven-game matches on this day. Against a prodigious rival, Sharath had the advantage of experience but lacked the answer to the over-the-table flicks from the teenager. But progressively, it was clear that Sharath, having played seven games less than four hours ago, could not match the speed with which the Japanese kid unleashed his strokes.
Moreover, in a tight match, Sharath’s high percentage of unforced errors provided Takamozo the cushion that kept him from panicking on the big points. Overall, late on Saturday evening, the exuberance and energy of youth prevailed over experience. “I made too many unforced errors,” was how Sharath put it as he battled the frustration of having let go of early leads in quite a few games. “How could I miss those shots and give away so many easy points on his serve?” asked Sharath, who twice levelled the match but never led.
"I had trouble with this serve and the way he received my serves," admitted Sharath and continued, "Overall, I am happy to be back in the top-50 after this semifinal appearance. But it is going to be a tough night ahead. I can’t believe I missed this chance to play the final.”
Earlier, in a match that meant a lot more to Sharath than Paul Drinkhall, the Indian favourite handled the pressure from the crowd and came out stronger in the quarterfinals that went the distance. From holding a match-point to starting at one, Sharath almost let the crowd down. Finally, the prayer of the crowd was answered. In a tense finale to a battle of attrition lasting an hour, Sharath chased down Drinkhall.
Though the match lacked rallies, the crowd was happy with the outcome as Sharath, ranked 62nd in the world, scripted an 11-4, 10-12, 9-11, 11-6, 9-11, 13-11 victory against a player ranked 20 places higher. "It was good for the crowd but as good for me," said Sharath with a smile after just about managing to beat Drinkhall. “We know each other’s game so well. As you saw, we both did not allow each other to play our normal game. We both played from close to the table, served short and kept the other guy guessing. It was quite strange that even when I was ahead, I got the feeling that I was doing the chasing. Even on the last point, I had to choose just one corner before he served. Luckily, I had guessed it right.”
Drinkhall was understandably disappointed at messing up a forehand return after serving for the match at 11-10 in the decider. “I thought I had a good chance when I led 8-5 but then I netted a service-return and things got difficult. The crowd also played its role and backed Sharath. I now hope he makes it to the final.”
On match-point, when Drinkhall failed to keep the ball on the table, Sharath tossed his racquet in the air, more in relief, and then clenched his fist to mark the moment of triumph. This was Sharath’s fourth straight victory over Drinkhall in six matches since the 2008 Austrian Open.
The evening also saw the women’s top seed Doo Koi Kem, ranked 13th in the world, fall to Sweden’s Matilda Ekholm, seeded four and ranked 32nd, in a six-game semifinal.
Men singles (semifinals): 1-Dimitrij Ovtcharov (Ger) bt 3-Koki Niwa (Jpn) 8-11, 11-2, 9-11, 12-10, 14-16, 11-2, 11-8; 14-Tomokazu Harimoto (Jpn) bt 11-Sharath Kamal bt 11-7, 5-11, 11-7, 11-13, 11-9, 11-9; (quarterfinals): Ovtcharov bt 5-Yuya Oshima 7-11, 11-8, 11-6, 11-8, 4-11, 6-11, 12-10; Koki bt Jiang Tianyi (Hkg) 11-9, 10-12, 11-1, 11-8, 11-8; Sharath bt 6-Paul Drinkhall 11-4, 10-12, 9-11, 11-6, 9-11, 13-11; Harimoto bt 8-Robert Gardos (Aut) 4-11, 11-7, 11-8, 8-11, 12-10, 11-6.
Women singles (semifinals): 4-Matilda Ekholm (Swe) bt 1-Doo Hoi Kem (Hkg) 11-8, 11-7, 5-11, 11-9, 8-11, 11-3; 6-Sakura Mori (Jpn) bt 8-Ng Wing Nam (Hkg) 13-11, 12-10, 10-12, 9-11, 11-8, 9-11, 11-6; (quarterfinals): Doo Hoi Kem bt 5-Jiang Huajun (Hkg) 11-6, 6-11, 11-7, 11-8, 13-11; Matilda bt 7-Jieni Shao (Por) 11-8, 11-8, 11-7, 11-5; 8-Ng Wing Nam (Hkg) bt 3-Georgina Pota (Hun) 11-9, 11-6, 12-10, 8-11, 11-3; 6-Sakura Mori (Jpn) bt 11-Mak Tze Wing (Hkg) 11-6, 13-11, 10-12, 11-6, 11-7.