Sharath Kamal: I don’t do politics; I do sports

In an interview with  Sportstar, Sharath reflects on India’s qualification for both team events for Paris 2024, his amazing run in Singapore, his post-retirement plans and more.

Published : Apr 09, 2024 13:13 IST - 13 MINS READ

Standing tall: Sharath Kamal has been the flagbearer of Indian table tennis over the last 20 years.
Standing tall: Sharath Kamal has been the flagbearer of Indian table tennis over the last 20 years. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Standing tall: Sharath Kamal has been the flagbearer of Indian table tennis over the last 20 years. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

In August 2023, Achanta Sharath Kamal, the 10-time national table tennis champion, slipped out of the Top 100 in the ITTF Rankings, which was soon followed by a disappointing campaign at the Hangzhou Asian Games.

However, less than a year after hitting that low, the 41-year-old first helped the Indian men’s team reach the round-of-16 at the World Team Championships in Busan in February, which made it possible to clinch a historic Paris Olympics quota for the team event via world rankings. He then reinstated himself as the country’s top-ranked player, jumping from 88 to 34 in the ITTF Rankings after a sensational run from qualifiers to the quarterfinals of the Singapore Smash event, and is now a prime contender for one of the two quotas India will get for the men’s singles event.

Sharath, who has won 13 Commonwealth Games medals (including seven gold) and two Asian Games bronze medals over his two-decade-long career, has also been announced as the flagbearer of the Indian contingent for the opening ceremony of the Paris Games, which will be his fifth Olympics.

In an interview with  Sportstar, Sharath reflects on India’s qualification for both team events for Paris 2024, his amazing run in Singapore, his post-retirement plans and more.

If, at the beginning of the event in Singapore, someone had told you that you would reach the quarterfinals, what would have been your response?

When my wife and son asked me when I would return, I said I’d come back on Sunday when the main draw’s first round starts. I said if I can make it, I’ll make it to the main draw in the first round. Beyond that, I’m not very sure. I played until next week’s Friday. In between, my son was asking, “Which Sunday did you say you would come home?”

I didn’t expect it, but when I look back, there are a lot of attributes that went into the kind of mindset I was in. The first thing was the qualification for the Olympic Games after the World Team Championships.

For the last six to eight months, my primary focus after the Asian Games or even one year prior was on qualification for the team event. I knew that we had a chance at it because we were around there with the rankings, and that would make a big difference to Indian table tennis. The whole focus was on making sure that we got into the Olympic Games in the team championships, and that’s one thing that I had never done in my career. We beat Kazakhstan on a very close front. One or two teams had to lose at the same time. So, the combinations worked very well, and we made it. Once we made it, a lot of pressure was off our minds.

Also, I knew I had to go into Singapore Smash because it was so close to the World Championships. So, the match practice and the whole mental frame that I would be in for the World Championships would carry forward into the Singapore smash. I had the confidence to qualify for the Olympic Games. I went into that tournament physically and mentally fit, with no pressure at all.

I had lost to a player from Japan (Yuta Tanaka) six months ago at the Asian Championships, and he had beaten me 4-1. I didn’t have a challenge there. When I beat him 3-0 here in the second round of qualification, I felt like this tournament was going to be very open for me.

How did you prepare specifically for matches against World No. 13 Darko Jorgic and World No. 22 Omar Assar in Singapore? Do you look at the rankings of your opponents when you enter a contest?

The rankings are not the final verdict when we go to play matches. In the first round of the main draw, I beat World No. 51 from Chile. I knew my game was far better than his, even though I was ranked 88th at that point. To beat World No. 51 was not difficult because I’m a much better player than him.

More than the ranking, we look at the style of play, and that is why, for me, playing Darko Jorgic was a tough one because he is the opposite of me. He’s covering the table a lot with his backhand. He’s dominating the game with his backhand, and his passive game is very good and stable. So, even though I have the most ferocious attack, for him, it’s not so difficult. He can keep making me move around the table and wait for a weaker return, and he goes for it. That is the reason why the last two times were quite tough for me, even though the first time I played him, I had a pretty good chance. The last time, in 2022, just before the Commonwealth Games, he beat me 3-0.

This time, I told myself that what happened before couldn’t pull me down. It can’t weigh on my shoulder. Just because I lost to somebody doesn’t mean that I’m going to lose to that player now, and just because I won against somebody two or three times before doesn’t mean that I’m going to win this time. Also, of course, if you’re playing against a player you have never lost to, you are more positive, and vice versa.

As an experienced player, what I’ve learned is that you need to stay neutral and see what comes in. When I lost the first game to Darko, I felt it was going to be a very tough task because, against these kinds of players, you need to win the first game.

Especially in the best-of-five, you need to put the pressure in the first game. I felt like I was holding myself back. At that point, the coach told me to just go for the shots and be more confident in the shots that I played. I did that, and slowly, I could feel I was finding rhythm. At one point in the third set, I was able to challenge him on his strength. Because I was able to put the pressure on him, challenge him on his strength, and win a couple of points, that broke him down. I was able to psychologically beat him.

I played Omar Assar recently in UTT (Ultimate Table Tennis), and just before that, I lost to him in a Bundesliga game 12-10 in a deciding set. He also has a difficult style for me to play, but the way I started the first game that I won 11-4, it was like an explosion. With my game style, where I’m so aggressive, it becomes very tough for the opponent to find solutions.

How do you see the wins at this stage of your career in comparison to those when you had just started playing professionally? Do you value the former more?

More than me, society values it more. They give more respect: “Oh! He is 41 years old, and he’s still doing it.” If I did this in my 20s, is it not good enough? It’s still a good performance.

It’s a little bit tough to also compare your younger self when you don’t hit that kind of stardom to now when you are older and get this kind of attention. Let’s say if the same run had happened at Singapore Smash when I was 20, we would not be talking so much about it. We would have spoken about it for a week or something and moved on. Now, because of social media and society, there’s a lot more awareness about sports and about what you’re doing.

I won the Commonwealth gold in 2006 as well as in 2022. In 2006, people were still asking what I was studying because academics were important. In 2022, it was, “How do you still play?”

So, it is more of a perception, but what you can constantly see is that Indian sport is developing rapidly, going higher, and involvement in sports science is much higher, and that is the reason why all of us can prolong our careers.

I wanted to quit after the Rio Olympics when I was 34. Back then, or even now, at 34, you feel old. You feel like a fossil fuel. In the first round of the Singapore Smash qualifiers, I played against an 18-year-old. In the second round, I played a 23-year-old. In the third round, I played a 26-year-old. In the first round of the main draw, I faced a 22-year-old. Darko Jorgic is 25. The oldest opponent I faced was Omar Assar, who is 32.

And then Felix Lebrun is 17-years-old. My wife says, “You lost to somebody who’s just slightly older than our daughter.”

So, back when I was young, I needed to have discipline and single-mindedness. I had to focus and run through it, and I ran through it even until the Tokyo Olympics. You just go through the wall, make sure everything works for you, and push yourself through that.

For this Olympics, what is going to change for me is more mental, where I’m not going to hit through the wall. I’m going to push myself physically, but I also have some deviations. Not distractions, but deviations. In terms of spending a little bit more time with family, or if I want to have a meal with a friend, I will do that. Back then, I would not go to any social gatherings. I have spent a lot of years doing that. We also want to enjoy a little bit of life. So, when I’m able to have that mental space, I think Singapore Smash can happen again.

You mentioned that you wanted to quit after the Rio Olympics. Can you elaborate on the reasons and what changed your mind?

It is not that my game was not growing. It was more due to the age factor and personal reasons; the family was also growing. We decided to move back from Germany after the Rio Olympic Games. We had decided two years before that that we would move back to India. We will slowly get back to our usual lives.

But I had this injury in 2015 and started working and putting myself back into training. In 2016, just qualifying for the Olympic Games was a herculean task. I somehow made it and went there, but I lost very early, and the way I lost, it was one of the worst Olympic Games that I ever played in terms of the quality of matches.

When we came back to India, I wanted to look forward to the 2018 Commonwealth Games since I had worked so much. I spent nearly 19 years in Europe and gained a lot of experience and knowledge. At that point, I focussed a lot more on physical fitness. Ramji Srinivasan put me through a tough fitness routine, as he always does, and I was able to prolong it. 2018 was a watershed year for Indian table tennis, with eight Commonwealth Games medals, including team golds. Then, winning medals (two bronze) at the Asian Games for the first time was phenomenal.

I felt if I could get an Asian Games medal, let me try for an Olympic medal. Tokyo getting postponed by another year gave me more time to prepare, and the gap between Tokyo and the Birmingham Commonwealth Games became shorter. And once it came, the Hangzhou Asian Games moved. The target just kept moving. But now I feel I can’t push it to LA 2028. It’s not fair on my family because they are sacrificing a lot for something they are not aspiring to be. It also adds responsibility for me to take care of them, spend more time with them, and be around them. That’s also the reason why I keep telling people that this is going to be my last Olympic Games.

What is going to be your physical and mental preparation for the Paris Olympics? Have you discussed a plan with your team?

For the next four months, my younger brother Rajath and strength-and-conditioning coach Ramji Srinivasan have made a plan.

The first three weeks in April are going to be very hard. I’m spending almost three hours in the gym and three on the table. We’re going to mix that up for three weeks in April. Then, as we slowly get into May, we will spend more time in the hall. So, four to five hours of table tennis, one to one-and-a-half hours of fitness. As it comes to June and July, 45 minutes of fitness because that is how much a match takes. Within that period, it has to be intense, and it has to be as rigorous as possible because that’s how a match is.

Practice schedules will also vary in those patterns. In these three periods, what is the kind of diet that I have? What kind of recovery and sleep would I need? We discuss all of this with the playing coach and the fitness coach, and then we build up accordingly. Then, we talk to the physio, the mental coach, and the nutritionist and tell them what we are looking for.

At this point, the mental coach will have to make sure that I don’t lose focus on the goal or lose confidence. When you start to build something and work on it so much, the quality drops because the quantity is increasing. When the quality drops, still, how do I keep myself up there? What are the things I need to focus on? What is the self-talk that I need to keep doing, and what are the techniques that will help me peak going into the Paris Olympic Games?

What are your plans once you retire?

I would like to set up a high-performance centre in Chennai with the support of the state government. The paperwork is going on. The SDAT (Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu) is trying to make it a Centre of Excellence first and then have everything.

At the high-performance centre, I would be like the sporting director. I would not be coaching, but making sure the curriculum is built, training the trainers, and getting foreign coaches. Over a period of time, maybe try to build that into a national training centre so players always have a place to come back and practise.

India is a big country. One high-performance centre is not going to be enough. We need to have it in multiple places because I can’t expect somebody from the north or the east to come down to the south and get used to the weather, the customs, and the food.

Apart from that, try to also help the federation build the structure. With my administrative roles with Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), I want to build a good ecosystem for table tennis.

Some people have questioned your selection as the flagbearer of the Indian contingent for the opening ceremony in Paris...

I didn’t ask for it, and I don’t want to address it. There’s nothing much I have to prove.

I have proved all that I have to, and the questions raised are, I feel, a lot more political than having actual substance. I don’t do politics. I do sports. So, let me do my sport, and I’m happy doing that.

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