Upbeat Sharath Kamal aims to break top-30 barrier

Sharath Kamal, after returning from a career-threatening injury, is looking to get 2017 off to a perfect start and aiming to break into the top 30.

Sharath Kamal will be 11th seeded in the India Open.   -  Getty Images

Sharath Kamal Version 2.0 is here. Wiser, stronger and more confident of breaking into the world’s top-30 rankings, the country’s most successful table tennis player is optimistic, with a reason, to make 2017 a breakthrough year.

Upbeat after winning the seventh National Championship this month, Sharath is eager to strike rich in the upcoming $150,000 Seamaster ITTF World Tour India Open beginning here on Tuesday.

Ranked 62nd and seeded 11th, Sharath is confident of doing well in the field that has two top-10 players – Germany’s Dimitrij Ovtcharov and Belarus’ Vladimir Samsonov, ranked fifth and eighth in the world.

This optimism was far from Sharath even less than a year ago.

Following a career-threatening injury – his right hamstring gave way from the hip-joint in May 2015 during the World championship – Sharath underwent the most agonising phase of his career, ironically, when holding his career-high ranking of 32nd.

For six weeks, he was confined to the wheel-chair. He spent another six weeks on crutches. He started walking without support in three months. By the time he tried to jog, it was four months. He played his first match in October, standing but not moving. It was only in January 2016 that Sharath returned to active, competitive table tennis in the National championship in Hyderabad.

“A lot has changed since then. I’ve changed a lot, especially after the injury. I’ve worked on my physical strengths, hitting the gym for about 14 hours a week, for sure. I work more on the fitness part and skill. I just need to keep sharpening it all the time.

“I have reduced the table tennis hours which has helped me focus better. Now when I come for practice, I know it is only these 2-3 hours. So my mind is completely there. Earlier, I practised in the morning but in the afternoon session, I was only half there, complaining of tiredness. Now, that doesn’t happen. When you see me, I am always positive. I am 90 percent there, if not 100. Even on a bad day, it is 85 per cent. So there are not too many bad days happening because I am there for shorter period of time. This has helped me improve quite a bit. In short, I’m keeping my mind fresh.”

Looking ahead to the season, Sharath has set realistic goals. “First the India Open, in April we have the Asian championship and in late May to early June, the World championship in Dusseldorf, my second home. These three events can help me break into the top-30 in the world. If I just have two good weeks, in these three months, I can break the top-30 barrier.”

The last time Sharath played an international event at home, the 2015 Asian Cup at Jaipur, he defeated three top-16 players in the world.

“That’s very much possible again,” assures Sharath and continues, “I have the feeling that I am back on the track. Like (former National champion) Soumyadeep Roy said to me, “What I have seen you play since October (2016), a lot has changed. You are more precise. It is nice to see you play like this.” So I also feel, I am riding a high, playing more confidently. Personally, I have this feeling that I play good in India in the international events. My track record is pretty good. Thanks to the Indian conditions, I am little better off.”