40 and loving it: Ageless Sharath is the gold standard
Three golds and a silver help the veteran cap his most successful CWG campaign
Back in December last year, Sharath Kamal’s sole goal looking ahead to the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) was to remain niggle-free. For a man touching 40, days ahead of its onset, that was perhaps wishful thinking. Hamstring trouble in March reiterated that.
In Birmingham, where he competed the day after the opening ceremony while also turning up hours before the closing act, that risk would be further aggravated.
“I’m really surprised with the way I have been waking up with a fresh body every morning,” Sharath said.
Surprised about just that? Not about winning four CWG medals at 40? Or a singles gold after 16 years? Or a first-ever mixed doubles medal—make that a gold too—with a partner 16 years younger to complete the full set at these Games? Or playing 13 matches in the last four days, winning 12 of them?
“Just incredibly happy with what has happened here,” Sharath said, his wide smile doing well to hide the exhaustion from the long hours he’d put in here for his three gold (singles, mixed doubles, team) and one silver (men’s doubles). “What more can I ask for? Forty years of age. Thirteen medals at the Commonwealth Games. I’m happy with where I am.”
In his final gig before also performing the flagbearer duties for the closing ceremony, Sharath, the world No 38, cruised past 20th-ranked Englishman Liam Pitchford 4-1 (11-13, 11-7, 11-2, 11-6- 11-8) in the singles final on Monday. A little over 12 hours ago, he walked off with Sreeja Akula as the mixed doubles champion, the first-time Indian pair beating Malaysia's Javen Choong and Karen Lyne 3-1 (11-4, 9-11, 11-5, 11-6) in the final.
By the time there was no match left for Sharath to rush back and win, he had lost count of the number of times he’d done that over the last few days.
The Chennai man had foreseen in December his body needing to be at its absolutely peak and trouble-free come July. The path for periodization too was chartered accordingly, a science he believes he has gotten better at learning with experience.
“I came prepared for the Games. The preparations started in December to get myself niggle-free, which means that’s the amount of toil I’ve put in all these months. The periodization and hitting my peak, I am able to understand now very well and that has paid off.”
It’s not just about the body for this age-defying paddler. The game too was given a constant brush up since the Tokyo Olympics where that battle with China’s Ma Long can be enjoyed on loop.
“What am I looking at practicing, what should I be working on and those things. There’s a clear path about the fitness and technical aspects. I sit down with my coach, fitness coach, mental coach, nutritionist and decide this is how I’m going to go for the next days, weeks and months. And you have to adapt to whatever is thrown at you in it. For example, when I had that hamstring issue, we had to bring down the load, and load up it some other time.”
For a man who has made it a habit to plonk himself on the podium at the CWG from the time he won his first singles gold in Melbourne in 2006, you’d think the rush of emotions and the novelty factor would subside with each passing walk up there. “If that was the thought then I wouldn’t have been here,” Sharath said. “Every time there’s a new challenge, a different situation to tackle.”
That came in mixed doubles for this CWG. With Manika Batra switching to play with G Sathiyan after partnering Sharath in Tokyo, the veteran teamed up with the Sreeja Akula, 24, here. The two had only once played together in a tournament a few years ago, and trained as a pair for a day and a half in Hyderabad in the days leading up to the CWG (Sharath couldn’t make it for the Portugal camp due to visa issues). Little wonder neither expected a medal, let alone the gold.
“I was sure of getting medals in the other three events, but not mixed,” Sharath said.
Their game styles complemented each other. For example, Sreeja, with that pimped rubber, could get her block shot out for Sharath to take over the attacking strike. But their personalities were also poles apart. Sharath described Sreeja as “timid”, and his first job was to pull down the intimidating wall for Sreeja of playing with “Sharath bhaiya”. Sreeja doesn’t talk a lot while Sharath thrives on self-talk. They found the middle ground to communicate during matches—eye contact. “By looking at each other we understood we played the right shot or executed our strategy well,” Sharath said.
In the quarter-finals, they beat the reigning silver medallists and edged past a tricky Aussie pair in the semis. “It was just about getting the job done in the final then,” Sharath said. “We played some fantastic table tennis right through the whole tournament.”
Bronze for Sathiyan
Meanwhile, Sathiyan ended his topsy-turvy CWG with a singles bronze, beating England's Paul Drinkhall 4-3 in the bronze medal match. India’s top-ranked singles paddler had been eager to break his singles medal duck in major events, especially after his early Olympics ouster.