Table tennis veteran Sharath Kamal singled out mixed doubles as India’s best chance for an Olympic medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on Thursday.

The format will make its debut in the summer games, giving India an equal footing as the rest of the world.

“I think mixed doubles is the best chance to win the win a medal,” Kamal said in an event in Mumbai.

Kamal, along with top-ranked women’s player Manika Batra, have been in top form recently. They clinched a historic bronze medal in the Asian Games last year and followed that up with a gold in the recently concluded Nationals in Cuttack.

The 36-year-old revealed that preparations for Tokyo are already underway with Kamal targeting mixed doubles because of the format.

He added, “Of course, me and Manika did well [recently]. There are only 16 teams at the main stage. So, if you win three matches, we have a medal. We are training for mixed doubles exclusively and the qualification for that will be through pro-tour tournaments. It’s a ranking of the completely.

We are pretty sure we will make it through the singles [qualification], though. If we don’t make it through to any of the tournaments, we will still progress through the rankings.”

Changing perception

2018 was a watershed year for Indian table tennis after a memorable Commonwealth Games followed by medal wins in Asian Games. Kamal believes that that those wins would act as a morale-booster ahead of the Olympic year.

“Those medals gives us a lot of belief that even at the Olympics it is a possibility [to win medals].”

Kamal now holds the distinction of becoming the first table tennis player to be awarded the Padma Shri. With his ninth National title, he broke the legendary Kamlesh Mehta’s record.

India have a half-a-dozen players in the top-100 and G Sathiyan became the highest-ranked Indian of all-time, scaling to the 28th spot in the International Table Tennis Federation rankings.

The Chennai-based paddler says that India’s recent success in table tennis has changed the way the public view the sport. “People’s outlook has evolved now. They understand it is a professional sport,” Kamal said. “When I was starting out, they would ask me if I am still continuing with my education or if I have ‘another’ job at hand. These days, they don’t.

When I started out, we were 29th in the world, now we are tenth. Not just the game, the bodies around the game are also helping. That is why, previously, we had very few players from the system and it was a select few who were doing well. During Kamlesh [Mehta] sir’s time or Chetan Baboor’s time, or during my time, it was just us [at the top]. In the initial stage of my career, I was the only one.”

‘India can challenge Chinese dominance’

Kamal believes that Indians can gradually challenge China’s lopsided dominance in Olympics in a few years. In Gold Coast, Singapore were knocked off their perch and Kamal clinched his fourth Commonwealth Games gold medal.

“Players are now arriving in batches and that is a result of the system producing the results,” he says. “If we can continue to have these people around, we can break into the top-five or even be the best in the world for that matter.”

Handling a packed calendar is still a challenge for Kamal. As for the backroom staff, there has some shuffling. A few months ago, Italian coach Massimo Costantini decided not to renew his contract and Brett Clarke and Yin Wei were appointed as the foreign coaches.

“We still don’t know what to pick and choose. It’s trial and error method,” Kamal observed. “The younger players are able to play a lot. They [the likes of Sathiyan, Harmeet Desai, and Batra] played around 15 tournaments in a year and that is a reason why we have six top-100 players. It is very difficult to keep up, though. We need to prioritise.”

“There a lot of tournaments at ITTF wants you to play to help your world ranking. There are the domestic tournaments, UTT [Ultimate Table Tennis] and few other commitments are also there. It is very hard. If we can replicate that system.”

Working in tandem with a national coach, the 33-year-old thinks, is the way forward to keep the players in good shape for the marquee tournaments. “That [picking and choosing the tournaments to participate] was happening until the Asian Games. A national coach knows how the system works, how SAI [Sports Authority of India] works. That will serve us well, going forward.”