A. Sharath Kamal, who has been the torch-bearer of Indian table tennis for well over a decade, is two weeks shy of turning 35, a milestone that often puts Indian athletes on the verge of retirement. However, India head coach Massimo Costantini is confident Sharath is far from being at the fag end of his career.

“Table tennis is going to be a long-career sport. Last Olympics, a player like (Vladimir) Samsonov could fight for the bronze medal at the age of 40. Sharath is 34. He is in the best moment to perform well. I am expecting he will have a good Olympics in 2020 and stretch his career to maybe 2022 Commonwealth Games,” Costantini told Sportstar during the 11Even Sports National Ranking (Central Zone) Table Tennis Championship.

“He has to be managed properly. Fitness, practice, activity outside India – we need a plan for Sharath and I am sure he is as eager as any other top player to keep improving. He needs to work on a slightly different mentality because his skills are not the same to what they were four-five years ago. On the other hand, he is more mature than what he was back then. So we need to make a plan considering all these aspects and I believe Sharath will soon give a huge reason to celebrate for the country.”

‘Golden opportunity’

Sharath, the World No. 44, has set the roadmap for Indian paddlers on the global stage. It has resulted in Soumyajit Ghosh and Harmeet Desai joining him in the top-100 club while G. Sathiyan is on the cusp of entering it. Costantini, who was re-appointed as India coach last year, feels it would be easier for the younger lot to fill in the boots of Sharath.

“They have a golden opportunity because Sharath is alone. If you look at the history of a country like Sweden, they had (Jan-Ove) Waldner, (Peter) Carlsson, (Jorgen) Person in their golden generations. And the next generation couldn't follow suit. In fact, even another generation got lost. Now, after ten years, we have started a few players stepping on to the world stage from Sweden,” said Costantini, who has also coached Italy and USA's national teams.

“In India, there is only one top player so the youngsters have an opportunity to create a niche for him. Ghosh, Sathiyan, Harmeet – I would also put Sanil and Amalraj – are capable of grabbing opportunities. To perform as a team, we need five quality players and we have five who can excel. I hope they can continue and achieve what Sharath has already achieved or follow into his footsteps even in the years to come.”