A message came through on the virtual press conference waiting room chat: Achanta Sharath Kamal is running late, he’s finishing up a gym session.
He’s 40 now, but still among the top 40 in the world. The talent has always been there, and even evolved over the years. The big ground strokes, the masterful tactics, the heart for a challenge. After being a mainstay in the Indian team for over two decades now, he’s still a prominent part of the squad that will compete at the Commonwealth Games that starts on July 28.
More than his game itself, over the past few years, it’s been those precious minutes in the gym that has kept Sharath in command of his craft.
“Compared to the last three-four years, the time I’ve spent in the gym is much more compared to playing table tennis,” he said once he arrived for the interaction organised by the Sports Authority of India. “The amount of time I spend on mental fitness – the ability to concentrate and keep the focus high – is critical. It’s important for me to keep fit physically and mentally. The amount of table tennis I play is proportional to my fitness.”
Keeping a track of how his body is faring is paramount for the veteran, who has won four Commonwealth Games gold medals, one silver and three bronze since he first appeared at the quadrennial event in Melbourne 2006. His CWG debut in Australia 16 years ago was a game-changer.
“I was a newcomer, a nobody in the international scene. But that tournament in Melbourne shot me to international fame,” he said. Sharath had won gold in the men’s singles and team event back then.
“That was the emergence of Indian table tennis at the international stage. But back then, I didn’t know how to train for such events.
“Now I know how my body reacts, what my body requires, what my mind requires. There’s been a lot of trial and error, but I’ve come up with a plan. Now (in early July) I play TT for an hour and a half a day but spend four or five hours on fitness, allocating enough time for rest and recovery. I’m not getting younger, so I need my body to be as fit and sharp in every training session.”
Most of the training he goes through now, though, is mainly off the table. It’s mostly the fitness sessions and time he spends working on his mental fitness that is the priority. After all, as he described, the table tennis training can only come well once his mind and body are sharp enough to handle the physical load of the sport.
“I try to finish my fitness sessions in 45 minutes because that’s generally how long it takes, on average, for a seven-set match to end,” he explained.
“The fitness, the practice, they’re all 45 minutes of intense sessions. Post the pandemic, things have changed a lot in international TT since there are fewer tournaments now. But that’s an advantage for me since I can pick blocks and know when I need to work on the foundation – work on the body, the technique, the skills. When I know there is time for a tournament, there’s more fitness work.”
Through the work he puts in though, he asserted there’s not much difference to his general game. What has kept him afloat in the world rankings – he’s currently world No 38, just three behind G Sathiyan – is the intent he brings to his matches.
Last year at the Tokyo Olympics, Sharath came up against Ma Long, a player considered the greatest table tennis player ever, in the third round of the men’s singles draw.
Ma was the heavy favourite, and Sharath had never won in any of their previous four meetings, but here he was, pushing and frustrating the player who’d go on to win the title eventually. There came a point when Ma opted to take a time-out at a crucial juncture in the match, when Sharath was to serve to stay in the third game with the score at 1-1. It was a tactic (entirely legal) used to break the Indian’s rhythm. Sharath took it as a badge of honour – after all, how often do you get to torment a player known to run through opponents.
A year later, Sharath said that performance was more about him being invested in the match.
“You look at the match, there was nothing technical there where someone felt ‘wow, what a forehand, what a backhand.’ It was just me standing up for the fight, not giving up. Intent was what everyone was talking about. That doesn’t come overnight. There’s a particular way to train in practice. How to control breath, how to control your thoughts… its part of the mental training session,” he said.
“That helps me gain confidence. That’s how I look at myself. It’s a process that goes day to day, and eventually it shows up in the match.”
Perhaps the biggest thing he had to do recently for his table tennis was undergo a small medical procedure on his foot in December. It was to fix the extra bone growth on his left foot that had troubled him for months. He uses special insoles now to aid his movement in the gym and on the table.
It’s all helped him rake up the results over the years. Recently, he added a record extending 10th senior national title in Shillong. And now he’s gearing up to help the team in Birmingham for yet another Commonwealth Games appearance, the event that propelled him into international fame all those years ago.