After a seven-month layoff forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the country’s leading table tennis players arrived at Sonepat (Haryana) on Wednesday for a 42-day national camp aimed at the Olympic qualification next year.

Nine-time National champion Sharath Kamal and Anusha Kutumbale - both part of the 11-player group - will reach on Thursday. All the campers were required to clear a COVID test three days prior to their travel to Sonepat. The players will begin training after six days of mandatory quarantine.

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Sharath, instrumental in pushing for this camp since August in keeping with Table Tennis Federation of India’s (TTFI) plan and the requirements laid down by the Sports Authority of India (SAI), was "delighted to have the ball rolling again”.

“I am looking forward to getting back the focus and concentration which is not possible to experience when you are training at home. There will be some young, quality players in the camp like Manav Thakkar and Sudhanshu Grover, and we all can gain from each other’s presence,” Sharath told Sportstar on Wednesday.

Among those missing the camp, G. Sathiyan is training in Germany and currently playing in Poland. On his return, Sathiyan is due to play in Japan. Harmeet Desai is training in France, while A. Amalraj is recovering from COVID-19.

Manika Batra and Madhurika Patkar have expressed satisfaction with their training routine in Pune and Thane, respectively.

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In contrast to the initial apprehension expressed by several players, the news of Sharath’s presence at Sonepat has prompted many of them to enquire about joining the camp later. The TTFI, though, was not in favour of such staggered arrivals of the players that could raise the risk of Covid to the campers. The camp ends on December 9.

- Eager to get back to the grind -

Touching upon his roadmap, Sharath said, “Week-wise, I have a few things planned which I will discuss with the three coaches. I know some of these younger players have kept themselves fit during the last seven months but I am not aware how they are playing at present.

“Personally, I have a few drills in mind to get my sharpness back. I was at the top of my game in March before the lockdown but now I need to pick up the pieces and build myself for the challenges ahead.

“Physically, I managed to lose three kilograms during the lockdown and that is making me feel better. My goal is to work on certain specifics of my game. Game-wise, as I said, I have some way to go. The amount of work required will be known only once I start hitting the ball,” he said.

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He added that the ultimate aim was to secure his berth at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. “Obviously, qualifying for the Olympics is paramount on everyone’s mind. But the dates are yet to be announced for the qualifiers. Effectively, we have just eight months to go for the Olympics and I’m sure, this camp will be a huge step forward in our preparations,” he said.

The camp is likely to have two sessions of play, a session each for fitness and yoga. “This could help the players get back 100 per cent in the zone. The SAI has agreed to provide a physiotherapist and this move should help in our recovery,” he said.

Sharath, a four-time Commonwealth Games gold-medallist, said he was initially keen on the camp being held in Bangalore.

“Initially, I was keen to have this camp at SAI centre in Bangalore. We all needed to be in a secure bubble and the SAI campus could provide us with that. But, I was told the flooring needed replacement and that could take time before it could be put to use.

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“When the TTFI suggested Sonepat, I readily agreed. I know we all can stay secure for all these days without having to deal with travel and risk staying at any hotel. (The players will be staying in the hostels of the host Delhi Public School),” he said.

TTFI Secretary M. P. Singh said, “The camp will help the players come into good shape, kind of match-ready fitness, before the Olympic qualifiers next year.”