In a year in which Achanta Sharath Kamal turned 40, the evergreen star of Indian table tennis managed to come up with the best season of his long, decorated career.
A record-extending 10th national championships title came early, then there were the four medals he won at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham – including his first ever gold medal in the mixed doubles event. These were achievements that saw the Padma Shri and Arjuna Awardee also win the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award – the highest sporting honour in the country.
A master tactician of the game and charmingly eloquent off it, he is a man full of confidence after the stellar year he has had, and the results have simply added to his already steely determination.
In a free-wheeling interview with Scroll.in, he talked about how his season went, how he prepared for the Commonwealth Games, his fitness regimen and more.
Excerpts from the interview:
How would you sum up the 2022 season?
It was a year I hoped would never end. It’s been the best year I’ve had – in terms of performance, or the kind of recognition that I have received following the table tennis I’ve had. And then following that up with becoming the ITTF Athletes’ Commission co-chair, the IOA Athletes’ Commission vice-chair. There’s been a lot that happened, especially in the second half of 2022.
The beginning was also good. I played the semifinal of a world ranking tournament [WTT Contender, Doha, in March], then won the Indian National Championships for the 10th time. All these things aren’t even spoken about because they’re comparatively smaller than what came later.
Table Tennis: Buoyed by 10th national title, Sharath Kamal sets sight on Commonwealth Games gold
I thought 2021 was my best year earlier because of the Olympic Games. In terms of the level and quality I played against Ma Long, the Olympic champion, it’s something that is still being spoken about. And I think in the years to come too it will be spoken about because of the way I played, the way I carried myself, and the level of table tennis that I played. That was something special, it was at a very high level. I really didn’t know if I could have that kind of performance in 2022, but the results have just overtaken 2021. I really can’t expect anything better than what’s been happening.
At the CWG, there was one gold medal you had never won before – in mixed doubles. Do you remember the moments leading up to and winning that medal with Sreeja Akula?
Going into the tournament, I didn’t know what to expect. Sreeja’s coach, Somnath Ghosh, I had played with him years ago – nowadays all coaches are people I’ve played with at some point. I guess it goes to show my longevity. I had played together with him and we’ve been friends for some 25-30 years. Sreeja had won the nationals and we knew she’d be in the team. After the nationals, he asked me ‘would it be possible for you to play with Sreeja if you don’t mind.’
I said ‘yes, we’ll play’.
CWG 2022, Table Tennis: How Sreeja Akula reset and struck a historic gold with Sharath Kamal
We had some good training sessions together in Hyderabad. Sreeja was expecting a lot. She was anxious to not make any mistakes – she felt that because of her, we must not lose.
In mixed doubles it’s very easy for the boys to create the opportunities to win the points. But if the girls are lacking, then it becomes tough on the boys. But in the final especially, she was awesome. Many times, I’d feel that the next time if the ball was played in one way, then how to respond to it, I’d keep telling her. In the final, by the time the thought had come to me, she had already done that.
And she kept giving me the confidence. In the initial rounds I was playing well. Quarterfinal onwards it got tough for me, but she really stood up to the challenge.
The Ma Long match at Tokyo Olympics, you previously talked about how you didn’t do anything special but just showed intent. Did that become a yardstick for you, showing you what you are capable of and something that you wanted to deliver over and over again?
Yes, it did. I had a lot of time to prepare for the Olympics. It was to happen in 2020, then it moved on to 2021, and then there was the Covid break. I trained only in India.
Until 2020, I’d always go to somewhere in Europe or Asia, be around top players to prepare. In India, of course I needed to tweak a lot of stuff around to stimulate that kind of environment that was abroad. But at the same time, I gained a lot of confidence because of the way I prepared for the Olympics.
I knew that ‘this month I’m doing this, next month I’m doing that.’ Every three months was a block and every six to nine months was the goal period. Of course, I did have a lot of experience in re-evaluation and trying to understand myself. For Rio, I started my preparation four months prior to the Games, but I felt that it was too close for my mind, my body. I need to have a session starting off at least five months before. And with age the gap just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
But for Tokyo, I had nine months to prepare and nothing else to do. The important measurements I had became different. Your routine was different because you’re not travelling so much. The diet, the training, everything was under control because nothing else was happening much, nothing to disturb the preparation.
What were some of the lessons you carried with you to Birmingham from Tokyo?
No doubt, it was a tough period all over the world. (The pandemic) was a difficult period. The mindsets changed. For example, I had asked for permission to train at a stadium, but they said ‘are you mad? People around are dying out there and you’re asking to practice.’ It put things into perspective.
The priorities were different, nobody cared if you had to practice. The priority was to save lives and fight the pandemic. At that point of time, I had to be careful about myself. You didn’t know what kind of effects (the virus) had. We were scared, but we had to continue our training. It was a tough situation.
But when team India went into the Olympic Games, at least for me, I felt that ‘wow, this is the best that can happen to us.’ From rising out of the situation that we were in in April and May, and now we’re here in Tokyo. Everything was positive thereon.
That’s one big thing I learnt. I had to take things in a more positive way, the mind has to be in that space so you can perform that way.
There was a lot of things that have happened in preparation for this Commonwealth Games, and I took a lot of lessons from the preparation for Tokyo.
You had a medical procedure on your foot this time last year. How is your foot now, a year later?
Basically what happened is because of the impact I keep having (on my feet). Especially because I’m tall and heavy, I’m not lanky. And with the playing style I have, in which I’m not really blocking the ball, I’m just playing explosive, there was extra deposit of calcium in the heel bone. It was creating some problems, it is a life-long problem and there’s nothing I can do about it. But I just got some small treatment done at least a year before the Commonwealth Games.
I finished with the World Championships, and in December I decided to get this done so that I have time to prepare for CWG from January 2022 onwards. That was the plan. There was nothing much that was happening at the time either because the nationals too got postponed.
But even that procedure was a part of the preparation for the CWG.
There was one particular day during the Commonwealth Games where you played six matches across events. The mental aspect is one thing, but there was a lot of physical fatigue involved too. Is that something you trained for?
It was completely planned and I had specifically trained for that. In 2014, I had lost the semifinals of singles and then bronze medal match to Liam Pitchford. I understood that, at that time, I was not able to stay fit enough to compete four events over 15 days, and plus there was the age factor. I was getting fatigued.
Then I got better in 2018, but even there on the last day I felt it was feeling that it was quite tough. The coach back then told me that this is not something I’m doing for myself but for the country. There was a greater cause, and because of that even if you’re not feeling like it’s your best day, you still say, ‘come on, I need to do this.’ I knew what the situation would be like, so I started to plan accordingly.
CWG 2022, Table Tennis: Achanta Sharath Kamal works more off the table to excel on it
My preparation (for 2022) started with a 6 am run everyday. After that I go straight to practice. I take a short break, eat some breakfast, and then go to the gym and finish from there around 12. Then I get back home, rest for one or two hours. Initially I’d spend time with my family in the evenings. But then as the CWG approached, I’d start one activity in the evening – be it table tennis, or fitness. Something for an hour, hour-and-a-half. I cramped in a lot of work in a day because I knew this is how it would be.
You would also go for a run in peak Chennai heat as well…
Yes. I’d go for a 5 km run at the beach, or play outdoor basketball, at around 12 PM. In the heat. Just to build the heat tolerance, but also try to keep focus on what I was doing. Of course, I wasn’t playing basketball that seriously, it was for fun. But just to get the baskets in, moving, passing… you’d get tired in 10 minutes of standing in that heat.
Now I can play for 45 minutes in the sun. If it’s really hot I don’t complain. I’ve put myself through that procedure – let’s say torture. I’d do that once a week during the build-up to CWG.
But because of that, recovery was something that was very important. It’s something that actually helps you reverse age.
I go to the cryotherapy chamber at minus 140 degree Celsius – I’d stand in there for around five minutes wearing just gloves, socks and underwear. Then when you come out, immediately you don’t feel it, but the next day you feel fresh and that you can put yourself through that grind. That’s how the footballers do it abroad, even LeBron James does that. These are the kind of things I’ve learnt from other sports, from sports science.
I monitor my heart-rate, my work load. During the CWG, every night I’d go to the recovery centre and work on my routine. After matches I’d go eat dinner, then take a short break, get into a hot pool for three minutes, then take an ice bath, which is around 12 degrees Celsius, for another three minutes. It helps with circulation that that keeps you mentally fresh.
These are the things that I kept doing, and it’s what helped me feel completely fresh till the last point on the last day.
Has the reception been different this time when you went to Germany to play club table tennis?
It was. A lot of people had followed the CWG. The last time, people didn’t really know what it was. Social media has helped people understand. I had some really good wins, Pitchford (men’s singles finals), Paul Drinkhall (men’s singles semifinal), Aruna Quadri (men’s team semifinal).
A lot of youngsters watched those matches and they were talking about it. It feels good that you were a part of something that so many people are talking about it.
What are your targets for 2023?
Asian Games is there and the Olympic qualifiers will start. Most importantly, there will be the 2024 Paris Olympics. That’s the main, main target. That’s the most important one, the one thing I don’t have in my kitty. That’s what I will be going after. The team championships is probably the one we have a fair chance to get the medal because it’s just three matches. In singles you have to win six matches. But in the team, if all of us have three good days, we’re back home with a medal.