A quick handshake with the opponent and his coach, and then Achanta Sharath Kamal runs to his own dugout. He leaps over the fence and sprints around the table tennis hall, arms raised throughout the victory lap. That’s how he celebrated his record 10th senior national title, at the 83rd edition of the event on Monday.
“It just so happened that the match was so close… I just went crazy. Ballistic,” Sharath told Scroll.in, as he explained the celebration.
“Every tournament is important. I’m going there to win, it doesn’t matter if it’s the first time or the 10th time. The kind of expectations people have is high, and the competition that we have in the domestic circuit, it’s pretty strong. It adds to the strength of the team. But winning the final, the celebration just came up.”
Against Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Sharath had to come from behind to win the best of seven game match 4-3 (7-11, 12-10, 9-11, 7-11, 12-10, 11-9, 11-6) to lift his 10th national crown.
“I was running as if I was 18-19, and this was my first title,” he said. “But that time I didn’t celebrate.”
Incidentally, just a few months ago, something as simple as running was causing the 39-year-old a great deal of pain. An extra growth of the bone in his left foot troubled him through most of the 2021 season, but especially towards the end of the year. Finally, in December, Sharath decided to undergo a medical procedure.
“It was a small procedure to enable faster healing,” he said, explaining that it was something he required not just to prolong his already illustrious table tennis career, but also to live a normal pain-free life away from the sport.
“It was a lean period, and there was plenty of time before the Commonwealth Games. There was a lot of pain, so I decided to do it.”
He has recovered well since then, although walking barefoot is no longer an option for him: “I still cannot walk without shoes or the special insoles I’ve had made,” he said.
But his performances on the table have not faltered. He reached the men’s singles semi-final at the WTT Contender in Doha last month, and also had a short stint playing club table tennis with German Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dusseldorf.
And of course, just a few days ago, the world No 38 beat Sathiyan (who is ranked one slot below) to win yet another national title.
The wins have been coming, but Sharath has constantly worked to reinvent himself – especially in his efforts to stay fit after the medical procedure on his foot.
“There are a few things I haven’t done for the past 6-7 months. Something as simple as running long distance, which is my stress buster. But I haven’t done any kind of running in recent times,” he said.
“The little running I do is on the beach. That helps me reduce the pain. I’m still trying to figure out alternatives, a lot of cycling, training on the beach. But mainly you need to reinvent more, when things start hurting.”
And now that his body has started to recover and aid his table tennis endeavours, his attention has started to shift to the Commonwealth and Asian Games later this year.
The veteran has won eight Commonwealth Games medals – including four gold – across events. But he’s hoping to win only a second singles title after claiming the crown in 2006. And that’s where the motivation to continue on the grind comes from.
“I’m just able to perform mentally and physically, time and again. I’m aiming to win gold at the CWG, especially in the singles,” he added.
“I’d like to win it again. But more than that, it’s just that I know I’m able to play at this level. I’m still in the top 40, I’ve won 10 national titles... I just don’t think about it so much. I’m just working on the process of playing and staying fit. Winning is just a by-product.
“But I can say I’m at the peak of my performance. Results also have been good. I’ve had the best Olympic Games showing.”
That third round match at the Tokyo Games last year against eventual winner Ma Long – considered by many the greatest to have played the sport – saw Sharath lose 4-1, but not without putting the Chinese player under all sorts of pressure.
“People still talk about that match now, because that’s the kind of fight I put up,” Sharath said.
He put up a similar fight on Monday against a player 10 years younger. Sathiyan was leading 3-1 before Sharath came back to win the final.
If there’s one thing the veteran has made clear, it’s that he can never be written off.