For an eminent sportsperson, Sharath Kamal is as casual as casual wear. Even the executive trustee of his alma mater Y.G. Rajendra finds it striking. He recounted how on his request, Sharath pulled out of his wedding shopping midway to suddenly appear as the chief guest and give a speech at a function with just around two hours’ notice.
The paddler, by then, had had his historic 2006 Commonwealth Games (CWG) men’s singles gold and his 2004 Arjuna award.
“He doesn’t have even a wee bit of ego,” Rajendra gushed.
His humility is often partially attributed to the view that his sport itself is casual to the public. He says it was. “Most importantly, from a recreational sport, it’s become a mainstream sport. People are watching it, are liking to play it. There is coolness about it now.
“When I play now, everyone knows or notices the kind of reflexes and agility I would need to have to get those balls back at that speed. So, the outlook of the sport has changed. That is a major thing,” observed the 40-year-old Sharath on the sidelines of the felicitation function organised by and at his alma mater PSBB Senior Secondary School (K.K. Nagar) here on Wednesday.
“The advancement of sports science has become phenomenal! The amount of sports science I use in my training is phenomenal. Even ten years ago, the usage of sports science was not as prevalent,” he added.
Ask Sharath how he still believes he can beat opponents who aren’t even half his age, he says, “I don’t have to believe, I’m beating them!” and chuckles.
“I’ve gotten physically slower. I have to train a lot more especially on my reflexes and agility, I have to work a lot compared to the younger me. At the same time, I have the experience I have the understanding of how to build the game, how to structure the tournament phase.”
Regarding that last point, he said in his speech to the students that he had a nine-month preparation for the rigour of the 2022 CWG.
“After the team event, I had nearly fifteen matches in a span of four or five days. So, there were days when I was playing six matches. I played three in each event (men’s singles, doubles & mixed doubles) in the morning half, and three in each event in the evening half. Still I was able to continue with the same amount of energy both physically and mentally through the whole tournament. And this doesn’t come overnight. This was because of the nine-month preparation I had done for the CWG.”
He said: “That (big tournaments) is where the fun is. Not in the daily practice. Not in the everyday monotonous disciplined life, there’s no fun anymore.”
Acknowledging the fact that the defensive game is and the exponents of it are waning, he said, “It’s more aggressive game style which is universally being played. It’s a pity. Defensive players are really fun to watch. Thay have a different flair that adds to the sport. It takes a very long time to build a defensive player!
“When I was growing up, only forehand was the attacking side, backhand was the defensive side. So, people used to play only forehand. Now, both flanks - have to hit from both sides. Have to! Otherwise, no chance! So, only those players are able to survive.”
To add more perspective to Sharath’s span and adaptability in the sport, he’s seen changes to the ball size (small to big) and material (celluloid to plastic).
He’s also wary of the responsibility he wields as an experienced sports icon. He now juggles responsibilities as a representative of the ITTF athletes’ commission and the IOA athletes commission. This is in between his German league commitment.
“There’s been a lot of understanding about administration and organisations, about the whole setup of how federations run.”
Talking about age and fitness, he emphasised, “If I’m able to keep myself physically on par with the younger guys, then there’s nothing like it.”
For how long does he intend to try and do that? He says for now his target is the 2024 Paris Olympics. Before that, he says, he has to immediately focus on the 2023 Asian Games.