Tokyo 2020: Sharath Kamal faces TT giant Ma Long in third round
Most of the greats of a sport tend to carry one nickname—CR7, Lightning Bolt, King of Clay, to (nick) name a few. Chinese table tennis star Ma Long has three of them: The Dragon, which comes from the Chinese character in his name; Captain Long; because is the captain of the national team; The Dictator, because, simply put, he almost always dictates the play against whoever is on the other side of the table.
On Tuesday in Tokyo, that player will be Sharath Kamal, the veteran Indian paddler who won his second-round singles match beating Portugal's Tiago Apolonia 4-2 (2-11, 11-8, 11-5, 9-11, 11-6, 11-9) on Monday. If, while dragging his ageing body into a fourth Olympics at 39, Sharath was hoping for the draw to show a semblance of kindness towards him, it hasn’t.
The world No. 32 Indian will have to get past the reigning Olympic champion and arguably the greatest table tennis player of all time for a place in the Round of 16. The term “arguably” will, without doubt, be thrown out of the window should Ma Long win another gold medal in Tokyo. The 32-year-old from the Chinese city of Anshan is a three-time Olympic gold medallist, the joint second-most by any male paddler. Only compatriot Zhang Jike, whom Ma Long beat for the 2016 Rio singles triumph, has four medals at the Games with three gold and one silver.
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Ma Long has won every major singles title that the sport has on offer—Olympics, World Championships (2015, 2017, 2019) and World Cup (2012, 2015) to complete a “Grand Slam” in table tennis. He sat like an emperor at the top of the world charts for a total of 64 months, a record among men, starting from 2010. It included a dominant grip of 34 consecutive months as world No. 1 from March 2015 to December 2017.
But the legend of Ma Long can hardly be restricted to rankings (currently 3rd), titles and stats. On the table, the right-hander’s ferocious forehands, often coming at a loop from over the net, can be too skillful to handle for even the sharpest across. Ma Long has also developed a solid backhand over the years to complement his natural side.
Sharath has a stronger forehand too, and his backhand play worked equally well against Apolonia. The Indian, feeling better than ever about his skills and fitness heading into this Olympics, will need every aspect of his game to be working like a dream against the Chinese, who will open his campaign against him having received byes in the first two rounds. Even that might not be enough for the Indian to bring down The Dictator.
“Hopefully, I can challenge him," Sharath said. Note the word—challenge.