EXCLUSIVE - ‘Expecting this to be my best-ever Olympics’: Sharath Kamal on qualifying for Tokyo Olympics
Veteran Indian paddler Sharath Kamal qualified for the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday with a dominating win over Pakistan counterpart Muhammad Rameez at the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Doha. World No. 32, Kamal brushed aside Rameez, ranked 690 in the world, 11-4,11-1,11-5,11-4 in just 23 minutes. He expressed satisfaction upon qualifying, saying he is back to hitting top gear again.
“I am really happy that I am back to where I was one year ago after winning Oman Open. I was in really good shape and the break happened [due to coronavirus-enforced lockdown]. I didn't know what to expect from myself but I am really happy to play two last 16s there and qualify for the Olympic Games,” Sharath told the Hindustan Times after his match.
Sharath, who sealed his berth on the basis of his superior world ranking, was always confident of sealing the ticket. “Qualification was not the major issue; I always knew I would qualify. It's still a small burden off your mind. This Olympics will be the best as far performance and results are concerned. I have my best ranking of 32,” explained Sharath.
The Asian qualification event has players divided into five groups in accordance with their geographical regions: South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Players of the fifth region, Western Asia, are not taking part as they have already qualified for the upcoming Summer Games. Table-topper from each group earns a spot in the Olympics. The sixth place is awarded to the highest-ranked player from the remaining lot.
-Rough last few months-
The coronavirus-enforced lockdown had an impact on all sports. It was particularly harsh for Indian paddlers as they were confined to their homes, while players in other parts of the world continued to train. Kamal, 38, dwelled into his managing that pressure and coming out of it:
“It was really hard until August-September when everything was shut. I was just doing home workouts. I was playing on the terrace with my younger brother [Rajath Kamal] or with the robot. There wasn't formal training as such and we were just doing it to keep in touch. It was mentally taxing and. TT took a backseat,” said Sharath.
The 2018 Commonwealth games gold medallist adds: “Once conditions eased, we trained and gained a lot of inputs from the training camps that happened between October to December, organized by TTFI (Table Tennis Federation of India and SAI (Sports Authority of India). That's when we were able to get back to routine and once again, TT became our top priority.”
-Improvement graph on a sharp rise-
But things are looking bright now. Sharath finished second best at the 82nd Senior National Championships in February, his first tournament after the long halt. He admitted that playing matches helped his game as he noticed improvements in certain areas and also understood where he lacked.
“Post the National Championships, I became a lot sharper in my game. I understood there are certain things like my backhand and blocking have drastically improved. However, the sharpness and the swiftness in my movement were not as good as expected. And that's exactly what I worked on in the WTT tournaments [Contender and Star Contender] and it paid off. Be it serve, receive, or the first couple of balls, I have become much faster now,” Sharath said.
-Sharath dons the analyst hat before the fourth Olympics-
The 2018 Asian Games gold medallist will appear in his fourth Olympics. His maiden appearance arrived at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He then went on to play in the 2008 Games in Beijing and the 2016 Rio Olympics. Kamal is keen to bank on the experience gained in his previous outings in Tokyo later this year.
“Being in the fourth Olympics, I have gained experience in how to prepare for the big matches. The biggest lesson from the 2016 Rio Olympics was understanding my periodization, trying to understand when I peak. That [understanding] is the reason why I peaked at this point of time because I started the process back in September ,” stated Sharath.
Sharath is yet to book a spot in the mixed doubles event with Manika Batra. He believes if they qualify, the chances of winning a medal are high.
“We will be playing a Singaporean pair in the semifinals and if we win, we will meet the winner of the semifinals between a Korean and a Thai pair. I think we stand a fair chance [of winning a medal] at the Olympic Games because qualifying is more difficult than the Games,” said Sharath.
He went on to add: “As far as singles is concerned, the best I have done is reach the third round. But I hope that I can make the quarterfinals first because it's anybody's game from there on.”
-What’s next for Sharath?-
The nine-time national champion has been on the road since February and is eagerly looking forward to first getting back to Chennai and spending some time with his family. He already has a few options in mind regarding training and traveling abroad seems unlikely due to strict quarantine rules in place.
“We are now waiting for ITTF to finalize the schedule for the month of May and confirm whether there will be a couple of tournaments taking place in China. I have also spoken to a few friends in Europe because traveling to other Asian countries seems difficult as they all have strict quarantine regulations in place. We don't want to waste time quarantining there and it's better to just train in India, try to bring in a few sparring partners to India. We have given a few options to the federation, including Germany, Denmark, and Portugal, based on the situation there," concluded Sharath.
-Manika, Sutirtha also qualify for the Olympics-
Manika Batra and Sutirtha Mukherjee also qualified for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in the women’s singles category. India’s second-highest ranked player Sutirtha defeated Batra 4-2 in the Asian Olympic qualification event in Doha on Thursday.
While Sutirtha booked a berth because of the win in their South Asia zone encounter, Batra qualified on the basis of her superior world ranking.
Along with Manika, Sharath also qualified for the mixed doubles event. The Indian pair, after beating the Singaporean pair Pang Yew En Koen and Lin Ye in the semifinals of the qualification event, defeated the Korean pair Lee Sang-su and Jeon Ji-hee in the final to punch their ticket for the quadrennial event.