Most sportspersons have a dream. A dream that made them get into the sport in the first place. A dream that drives them during their career.
For Achanta Sharath Kamal, Indian table tennis’ flagbearer for more than a decade, that dream was an Asian Games medal. It was one thing he wanted to add to his collection. And time, often an athlete’s worst enemy in some cases, was running out for him.
But the 36-year-old has found his second wind. And he found it a while back. He is back to being the country’s top-ranked paddler. He has starred at the Commonwealth Games, World Team Table Tennis Championships, and more importantly, at the Asian Games in Indonesia. For the man who holds many a first in Indian table tennis, the title of ‘first ever medallist’ at the Asiad sits well.
Scroll caught up with him after his mixed doubles win with Manika Batra in Jakarta. Excerpts:
You waited so long for one Asiad medal... and now you have two.
Well... winning one medal was a dream. Two... I don’t know. I can’t quite describe it. It’s an explosion of emotions. An outburst. It still hasn’t completely sunk in. I am looking forward to going back home to see the reaction there! The day we won the medal, we were playing back-to-back games (four in a day) so I was mostly just tired.
Back to the brink of breaking into the top 30, 2018 has been quite a year for you.
It’s been a fantastic year for Indian table tennis. We have been on an upward graph. But I don’t think this is the best time. That is yet to come. We have been doing well for a while and the process started in 2008. The improvement has been steady and there is still lot more to come from all of us. Of course, every sports person dreams of an Olympic medal and that’s the next step.
If you could pin-point the reasons for why table tennis in India is where it is today...
As I said, 2008 would be the starting point. With Delhi hosting the Commonwealth Games, we got a lot of funding so that we’d do well there. That was when the basic structure was built. We did well in the Games but later when the scams broke out, our funding stopped. That put a halt to the progress of the game, and 2014 went bad. But we’ve been back on track since then. 2016 was the first time when we had four different qualifiers for the Olympics. Thanks to Sports India, and the Table Tennis Federation, the growth has been structured and that’s a good thing for the sport. That’s why we have had the success. I think we can achieve much more. Sathiyan and I are in the top 40, Manav Thakkar is in the top five among juniors. Recently, our juniors won four medals at the Asian level in Myanmar which has never happened before.
And better exposure now than when you started?
Most of the current players moved into the European circuit in the early stages of their careers. They have started getting a lot of exposure to top quality table tennis. And when you are playing such matches regularly, it gives us a lot of confidence when we play against them in the bigger tournaments.
You have been the stalwart for Indian table tennis for a long time now. How does it feel to see the rise of Sathiyan, Manika Batra, Harmeet Desai?
It’s important to have a large pool of players doing well in the international arena. It gives the sport the kind of mileage it requires to really take off. If there are only one or two players, one cannot inspire a large fraternity to take up the game, make it popular. It develops a good ecosystem for the sport when you have such competition among the players from the same country. It makes a player better.
You had a career-threatening injury in 2014 at the World Championships. A hamstring tear. And for any athlete, recovering from such an injury is as much physical as it is mental. Did you ever let doubts creep in? Did you think then that the kind of 2018 you had was possible?
It took me six months to recover, physically. I was on a wheelchair for four weeks. I didn’t know how I was going to recover from that to get back to playing. That injury was not seen before in Indian table tennis so my physios, doctors didn’t know how exactly to treat it. Blessing in disguise, I was in Germany in that time and my Bundesliga club - Borussia Dusseldorf – helped with the recovery completely. It is because of them that I am still playing today. And during those six months, at the start of the rehab, trying to walk for instance, it was quite depressing. I didn’t know if I could run again. I didn’t know what the future held. And it was my wife stood by me during the worst of times. She was quite the support for me. You need somebody to fall back on in those times and she did that for me perfectly.
First ever team medal. First ever mixed doubles medal. What clicked at Asian Games for Team India?
I wouldn’t say something clicked at the Asian Games. We have been doing well on the tour consistently, upsetting higher-ranked players frequently, going deeper in tournaments. When three-four players go to a tournament, consistently at least one does well these days and that has just increased our confidence as a team. For instance, in the match against Japan (men’s team quarterfinal), we were not nervous, thinking this was a golden chance for a medal, that this was a do-or-die situation. Andha maadhri feeling eh illa (That feeling was not there at all). We knew they were better-ranked players, but if we played our best, we had a solid chance. As I said, it’s the end result of a two-year process.
In your first round singles match at the Asiad, you played a 52-year-old Pakistani. Looking at that, we couldn’t help but wonder if Sharath Kamal would continue playing that long as well. What’s next for you?
(Laughs) I really haven’t planned how long I will play. I am just taking it two years at a time. After the Rio Olympics, the main aim was to compete and do well at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. Now that has been achieved, we are positioned very well for Tokyo 2020. We should be qualifying for the team events, singles and mixed doubles – and not just qualifying. This time we’ll be there to create an impact. I can’t tell you if we will win a medal – that will be fantastic, of course. But, if we keep the same process going, I can tell you that an Olympics medal in table tennis is not far away for India.