“Everyday after coming home from work, my father would ask me one thing: Did you go out to play?”
To a young Kamlesh Mehta, these words were tiresome at times since he needed to walk for almost an hour to go to Matunga Gymkhana in Mumbai where he usually played. But the role these words played in shaping him as a table tennis player is huge.
As table tennis in India experiences a surge thanks to the paddlers’ historic results, first at Commonwealth Games and now at the Asian Games in Indonesia, it is easy to sometimes forget the past heroes of the sport. And prime among those heroes would be Kamlesh Mehta.
To understand the extent of his domination, one only has to look at the numbers. He figured in every national final between 1981 to 1989 — remember this was an era when Indian athletes had almost zero exposure and the nationals usually attracted the best players in the county. As such, there was a lot of prestige involved.
Eventually, he played in the final of the national championships on 11 occasions between 1981 and 1994, winning the title eight times (a record that was recently matched by Achanta Sharath Kamal). He was also the runner-up on three occasions.
The Indian team he was part of also finished 12th at the world championship in 1985 in Sweden.
Besides his achievements as a player, Mehta has also played a huge role as a coach and guided several generations of junior and senior India stars.
Still, to truly understand Mehta’s rise, one needs to go back to when he started. He still remembers the day distinctly.
“It was May 1, 1970 – my 10th birthday and also Maharashtra Day – so my father had an off and he took me to Matunga Gymkhana,” Mehta told Scroll.in. “It was there that I got hooked onto to table tennis. We would play it all the time and it helped that the Gymkhana, at that point, was the hub for table tennis in Mumbai. So we had the opportunity to watch the really good players and learn from them.
“Kaity Chargeman (who later married Farrokh Khodaiji) used to train there everyday. She was the reigning national champion, having first won the title in 1969 (she went on to win the title in 1970 and 1971 too). So we would wait for her training sessions to start. An opportunity to watch a national champion is rare. So one day, after seeing me turn up everyday to watch her practice, she asked me who I was and what I was doing.
“So when I told her I wanted to get better at table tennis and asked her for advice, she was always happy to help. But one piece of advice that stayed with and will perhaps be relevant to younger players as well was that to get better, you need to watch as much table tennis as possible. Watch and then try things out until you find the game that suits you.”
During school days, “compulsory” playing time was restricted to an hour and during holidays, it increased substantially. But because his father wanted him to play and because he kept getting better at the sport, Mehta soon became a young player everyone had their eyes on.
In 1975, Kamlesh Mehta was the fifth member of the Maharashtra team. He was 15 then and the association thought it would be good exposure for the young kid to see all the senior stars playing. But as luck would have it, Mehta got a chance to play in the first round against Manjit Dua, who was one of the big stars of Indian table tennis at that point.
“As it turned out, I just didn’t play him; I managed to beat him,” Mehta said. “And that is when I told myself that perhaps I could make a career for myself in the sport.”
Mehta was a smart player with superb technical skills. He had no clear weakness and a good understanding of tactics but a quality that stood the test of time was his mental strength. Throughout his long career, his ability to take victory and defeat with the same grace stood out.
“I have been a lifelong follower of Pandurang Shastri Athavale’s Swadhyaya Parivar and one of his main teachings was that in everything we do, god is an equal partner,” he said. “God runs the body while we use it. So one of the first things we used to at the end of every tournament – regardless of the result – was make an offering in the prayer room. The idea was to thank him for allowing us to win or ask for blessings to allow us to work harder in case of a loss.”
There were several breathing techniques that were also part of the meditation that Mehta used to do and that became part of his routine. Later on in his career, when Mehta sought help from the late sports psychologist BP Bam so that he could be competitive against the younger brigade (players like S Raman, Sujay Ghorpade, Arup Basak), he was told that his technique was the best mental training an athlete could do.
From around the 1960s, the Chinese starting dominating the sport. Their first world champion was Rong Guotuan in 1959 and by the time the 1980s came along, they had truly established their credentials at the world level. Starting 1981 – the Chinese had won four consecutive world titles with Guo Yuehua winning two and Jiang Jialiang accounting for the other two.
But when Mehta was once asked about his dream match by the press once, he had replied that he wanted to beat a Chinese player before his career was done. One has to remember that this was an era when the only exposure India’s players got was through World Championships, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games or the Olympics.
His words attracted a fair amount of criticism given the perceived difference in quality between the two countries. So much so that Mehta’s father stepped in and gave him a word of advice: “Dream big but keep those dreams to yourself, in your mind. You don’t need to announce it to the world, they only need to drive yourself higher.”
And Mehta did exactly that. He made a mental note and waited for his opportunity, which came along in 1992 during the Barcelona Olympics.
“In the qualifying tournament for the Olympics, I was playing very well and in the final, I came up against a Chinese player Lu Lin. I thought I was doing well up until that point but he hammered me in that match. I just couldn’t match him.”
At the Olympics, Mehta once again ran into Lu Lin. And given the manner in which he had been defeated, everyone expected a repeat.
“Well, it did end in straight games. Only in my favour!” said Mehta. “I took everything he could throw at me and my game just clicked. I said a silent prayer and remembered my father’s words.”
Table tennis has changed a lot since then and Mehta is the first to acknowledge that. The rubbers change, the glue has changed, the material used for the blades has changed. In fact the game now, is almost unrecognisable to the one that Mehta first picked up. But certain concepts will never change.
“When you keep playing for so many years (Mehta’s career lasted almost 20 years), you realise that besides power and spin, the most important thing in control. It is something I tell a lot of people even now. You need to use all these things in this small area of 4.5 feet x 5 feet. And you can’t do that without control.
“And perhaps that is the true charm of the game. It is never one thing that you do. You are constantly make adjustments and that keeps it interesting. It takes me back to the older days when we were first picking up the sport – we wanted to play and if that meant hitting the ball on the wall and playing, then so be it.”