The year 2018 was one that will go down in history as perhaps the most successful for Indian table tennis. The medal rush was dominated by the young brigade, of course, with the likes of Manika Batra and Sathiyan Gnanasekaran coming to the fore. But leading the charge was the evergreen Achanta Sharath Kamal, who once again finished the year as the highest-ranked paddler from India.
And he has started 2019 in fine fashion too, breaking the legendary Kamlesh Mehta’s long-standing record of most national titles by winning his ninth crown in the past week. The world No 30 re-established himself as the best in the country following a gruelling final against Sathiyan, one that he says is up there among the best matches he has been involved in his career.
The record-breaking national title, Sharath Kamal says in a telephonic interaction with Scroll, comes as a relief more than anything because those around him had built it up for him.
“Those around me — my well-wishers, friends, family, coaches, people I knew, people I didn’t — they wanted to me win the ninth title more than I did. That actually gave me an extra push, to stand up to the expectations,” Sharath Kamal said.
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Even after all these years on the circuit, Sharath Kamal said the expectations surrounding him in this edition (where he won three gold medals overall) was at such a fever pitch, that the pressure did get to him.
“Even a few years back, when people told me I have to break Kamalesh sir’s record, my targets were mainly at the international level. I didn’t enter nationals with an aim of breaking the record, of course I wanted to win it because I was participating in it, but that’s it. But the moment I got to the hall, every one was talking only about the ninth title. It got into my head and made me very nervous as well. I couldn’t actually handle it, I immediately called my younger brother to help me, coach me and sit alongside during the match,” said the 36-year-old.
The singles final was one for the ages with Sharath winning 11-13, 11-5, 11-6, 5-11, 10-12, 11-6, 14-12 against a determined Sathiyan, who was looking for his first national crown. Both players had match points before Sharath eventually converted his third in the decider to win 4-3.
“The finish was really, really tight. We could sense that the spectators were having a great time watching us play the final game. Of course, I gave heart-aches to my coach and friends. Looking back at it, I get great confidence from titles like this. It was the world no 30 and 31 playing against each other and a game of high quality. I am delighted with the win. But at the same time, a bit disappointed for Sathiyan because he was so close to winning his first nationals,” Sharath said.
The fact that he still gets nervous is perhaps, a sureshot sign that the competitive juices are flowing for Sharath, but according to him it’s how it always has been and always will be, he just gets better at handling the nerves.
Sharath’s 9 titles
2007, New Jalpaiguri
“Honestly, there is nervousness before every big game. I was nervous during the CWG last year as well despite having won medals before. But with experience, the ability to perform despite the nervousness gets better. The thinking is not to avoid nerves, it’s to perform at my best every time by overcoming it. Doesn’t matter how many more national tournaments, I’ll play, I’ll still be nervous,” he said.
Having reached his best ever world ranking to finish 2018, is this the best Sharath has played in his career? And where does this national title rank among his nine?
“I am playing really good table tennis in the last two years. My graph has been steadily improving and I hope I continue this till the Tokyo games. And many have asked me if this is my best title. As far as the quality of the final, yes, perhaps. But when I won my 7th title after a gap five years (in 2017) — I think that was the most important one for me. I wanted to stamp my authority once again in the national circuit, because I was focussing so much on internationals then.”
It was perhaps also fitting that Sharath Kamal broke the record in the presence of the man who has held it for 25 years — Kamlesh Mehta, who won his eighth crown in 1993.
“He was the first one to come down from the stands and give me a hug, insisted I take a photograph with him. He had done exactly that after my eighth title last year too. Even here during the tournament he kept telling me to stay focussed, not to interact too much with fans to avoid distractions — he clearly wanted me to win the title break his record. That shows his magnanimity,” Sharath said.
As for the man who he defeated, Sharath has only words of motivation for Sathiyan.
“With Sathyan, I told him ‘next time hope you’d win it’ and he wished me on social media too, while posting he is looking forward to the next time. That shows his attitude and he will do well, no doubt, for years to come.”