The legend of Sharath Kamal

In 20 seasons, Sharath has figured in 15 finals, winning 10 of them. This speaks of the man’s commitment, form and fitness over two decades.

Perfect 10: Sharath Kamal celebrates after winning the men’s singles title in the 83rd Senior National table tennis championship in Shillong. It was his 10th national championship title.   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR

Champions come and go. Legends stay.

Recently, Sharath Kamal added a new layer of greatness to his legendary status in Indian table tennis. This soon-to-be-40 champion added a record-improving 10th National singles title by dethroning G. Sathiyan, a worthy rival 10 years younger, in an enthralling title-clash in Shillong.

Unlike what one saw after Sharath’s nine previous triumphs, the veteran paddler made no secret of his joy. After a quick handshake with Sathiyan and his coach S. Raman, Sharath took off. Like a high-hurdler, he twice jumped over the surrounds used in setting up the field of play and completed a victory lap much to the joy of the spectators.

READ: Commonwealth Games 2022: Manika, Sharath among 16 probables for Indian table tennis team

For the record, in 20 seasons, Sharath has figured in 15 finals, winning 10 of them. This speaks of the man’s commitment, form and fitness over two decades. The double-digit National singles also came at a time when some of the top players across several disciplines, particularly racquet sports, prefer to stay away from the domestic circuit, leave alone the National championship.

Interestingly for the last three years, Sharath and Sathiyan have faced off in the National finals. In 2020, Sharath escaped to victory in seven sets to surpass Kamlesh Mehta’s tally of eight titles that stood since 1995. Sathiyan avenged that loss by winning his maiden Nationals in 2021.

Favourite star: It is truly amazing how former and fellow players, parents, technical officials and coaches respect Sharath for the way he plays, performs and carries himself. Indeed a role model, Sharath is the favourite among cadets and sub-juniors.   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR

 

This time, Sathiyan looked all set to retain the title after leading 3-1 and made it 10-all after saving two set-points to move within two points of victory. Staring at defeat, Sharath enjoyed a slice of luck when his return rolled over the net-cord to give him a third set point. The champion then produced a stunning forehand block that whizzed past Sathiyan and left him with a wry smile.

“In fact, when I lost fourth to trail 1-3, I was trying to come to terms with the thought that this could well be the fourth straight loss to Sathiyan. He beat me in Panchkula (in the National final), the Olympic qualifier (in Doha) and the PSPB inter-unit meet (in Indore). The last one was, of course, after my heel-surgery in December. I remember telling Rajat (Sharath’s brother) during the break that things were not working. He insisted that I hang around and it was just a matter of time before I got my game back. When I pulled off the fifth game, I suddenly felt great. I knew I had a chance,” Sharath says.

“I think, thereafter, I did not make any unforced error. Sathiyan found it tough to win points. He had to earn each point. I never gave it to him. That I guess put him under more pressure. In the decider, after making it 5-5, he just froze. Once it was 10-6, I decided to let go of all the pent up exasperations. That’s why I took off on a victory run.”

Elaborating on the win, he adds: “This was as big as winning my first title, when I trailed 0-2 to Ranbir Das or the ninth one (in 2020), when I was very fortunate to win against Sathiyan, who played so remarkably.

In December 2003, Sharath repeatedly jumped for joy before noticing the outstretched hand of Ranbir. Sharath then hugged his young rival even as the crowd continued to applaud the finalists. In fact, even after the 10th title, the applause never stopped until Sharath raised his hands and then bowed to the cheering spectators.

Interestingly, Sharath’s 10 titles came at the expense of eight different opponents. Only Sourav Chakraborty and Sathiyan have lost twice to him in title-clashes.

It is truly amazing how former and fellow players, parents, technical officials and coaches respect Sharath for the way he plays, performs and carries himself. Indeed a role model, Sharath is the favourite among cadets and sub-juniors.

On his part, Sharath willingly shares his experience and wisdom. “This is the way I can give back to the sport,” is how aptly Sharath puts it.

The beginning: Sharath with the trophy after winning his first national title in Manesar in December 2003.   -  R. V. MOORTHY

 

When Sharath played his first National championship in Chennai during the 1998-99 season, Chetan Baboor and Raman were among the leading names. Within four years, Sharath made his maiden final appearance, in 2002-2003 in Pune, but lost to Raman. Next year in Manesar, Sharath fought back to beat Ranbir.

“That was tough when I was down by two sets. But my father was around and in the break, he helped me keep my focus,” recalls Sharath.

The following year, in Panvel, Raman regained the title, beating Sharath in the semifinals The next edition in Jaipur saw Subhajit Saha stop Sharath in the final.

Thereafter, for the next five years, Sharath ruled the National championships. After avenging the loss to Subhajit in Ajmer for his second title, Sharath went on to beat Sourav Chakraborty (Siliguri), Pathik Mehta (Patna), again Sourav (Guwahati) and Soumyadeep Roy (Kolkata) for five National titles, in succession.

“From Ajmer to Kolkata, I was the undisputed No. 1. No questions asked,” a fact that Sharath reinforces and continues, “The victory over Roy was something I remember very vividly.”

Elaborating, Sharath says, “I was down 2-3 and trailing 7-9 in the fourth when I took a timeout. Even as my uncle was advising me what to do next, I was changing my bandana. I interrupted him and said, ‘today, I can get the trophy only if Roy gives it to me.’ My uncle was stunned. He couldn’t believe what he heard. That day, mentally, Roy was all over me.

“When we resumed, there was a high ball that Roy should have finished, but he put it back on the table. I was surprised. I saw it as my chance and went on to win the point. Suddenly, my belief was back. I won 11-9 and led 6-0 in the decider. That one point changed it all. It was also my first win over Roy in Kolkata.”

Then followed a lull for Sharath in the Nationals. He went without adding to his National tally for the next five seasons. In the 2011-12 season, he lost to first-time winner Anthony Amalraj in Lucknow, then to Soumyajit Ghosh in Raipur, did not make the final in Patna, missed Puducherry and lost before the final in Hyderabad.

“Often, I heard people discussing the possibility of me breaking Kamlesh Sir’s record of eight titles. Slowly the pressure got to me. The rise in expectations each time I came to play in the Nationals made me do different things in order to win. Mentally, I was trying harder but not winning the key matches in the Nationals.

“It was during this phase that my respect for Kamlesh Sir’s feat of winning the Nationals eight times grew manifold. Here I was struggling to win my seventh. How did he do it? I often wondered,” says Sharath.

During this phase, Sharath did raise his tally of Commonwealth medals but looked far from his best. Whenever he returned to India after meeting his contractual obligations for clubs in Europe, Sharath struggled. He took time to deal with the lighting in the playing hall, the under-foot conditions, the speed of the ball etc. Clearly, he was defensive. Instead of looking to win, he gave the impression of trying hard not to lose.

This made the younger lot not only test Sharath to the hilt but some of them managed to get the better of him. Soumyajit was beginning to prove the biggest threat to Sharath.

To make matters worse, Sharath suffered a career-threatening injury during the 2015 World championship. “The right-hamstring that is connected to the hip-bone, suffered a 20-centimetre tear. I was on a wheelchair for two months and on crutches for another two-three weeks. So from May to October, I was out of action before returning to play in the Bundesliga. This was a phase when I had serious doubts over regaining my full fitness but God was kind. I not only recovered well but also qualified for the Rio Olympics,” remembers the determined campaigner.

At the end of the 2016-2017 season, Sharath returned for the Nationals in Manesar, an industrial hub where he won his first title almost a decade and a half ago. Surprisingly, he was dropped from the Petroleum team. Clearly humiliated by this unjust treatment, Sharath came roaring back to prove his worth in the singles. Fittingly, he stopped Ghosh in the final to regain his National title.

This restarted Sharath’s love affair with the Nationals. Now a seven-time champion, Sharath looked at the possibility of equalling Kamlesh’s record, a feat he managed in Ranchi by beating Amalraj. The following year, he was the first player to claim nine National titles and raised the bar further in Shillong.

Sharath, whose career-best world ranking stands at 30, is a former Commonwealth singles champion besides claiming Asian Games bronze medals from men’s team and mixed doubles events. A couple of Pro-Tour titles apart, he has some notable victories over the top-15 players in the world. In the Tokyo Olympics, the display against the eventual champion, the legendary Ma Lin, further enhanced Sharath’s stature despite the loss.

Whether Sharath’s record stands the test of time, only time can tell.

But the legend of Sharath is going to be recalled and retold to the budding champions for years.

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