In a ‘slump’, Sharath Kamal hopes to rise for the team with Paris in mind
Skills are intact but India’s table tennis stalwart wants to overcome a dip in focus and give it all to qualify for one more Olympics
Shuttling between Dusseldorf and Lausanne this week, part of Sharath Kamal’s mind is back in Chennai. In his home city that is reeling in the aftermath of Cyclone Michaung, he has his family and five young paddlers staying put at his residence with sporadic electricity. “The good thing is they trained a bit in our home set-up on Tuesday,” Sharath says over phone from Lausanne.
The veteran Indian table tennis player himself was in Vijayawada — the Andhra city was also affected — until a few days ago for the National Ranking Championships. Right after his quarter-final exit there, the 41-year-old flew to Germany, and courtesy a delayed flight went straight from the airport to play a match for his club Borussia Dusseldorf over the weekend.
The next couple of months, he says, “is the most important time for me”. His four-week off-season training done, Sharath hopes to find some “match sharpness” playing in Germany and sparring with quality players. He’ll then turn up for a flurry of competitions: the nationals later this month and 3-4 WTT events in January before February’s World Team Championships where eight team spots for the 2024 Paris Olympics will be on offer. The reigning Commonwealth Games singles champion, now the India No. 4 and down to 107 in the world rankings, has turned his entire focus towards that.
“That’s something that is important for me in terms of team qualification. All the tournaments that I play before that, I need to raise my personal ranking so that the team has a better position. And if we make it to the last 16 there, I will put all that I have into that one match to make it to the quarter-finals,” he said.
The team couldn’t make it to the Tokyo Olympics two years ago, where Sharath’s singles battle with Ma Long attracted attention. Last year, he stole the show at the Birmingham CWG by sweeping three gold medals and one silver. This year has been far quieter. Apart from the team bronze at the Asian Championships in September, there’s been little to cheer about; either at the Asian Games, on the WTT tour or even domestically.
Sharath labels the year a “mixed bag” as player-administrator and admits the former has had a slump, “especially in the rankings”. It isn’t as much about an ageing body — Sharath has battled back issues over the last year — as it is about the mind.
“There’s been a slump in the mental part. The intent in the daily practices — not in tournaments — the focus, the everyday things that I want to be doing. There’s been a lot of administrative work that I’ve done, a lot of meetings, presentations, responsibilities. I’m also thinking actively about what I’m going to do after Paris; how much am I going to play, what am I looking at. A lot of thoughts which pass by. So, it’s more the mental part which is not as strong.”
The reason Sharath dashed off to Lausanne was to attend an International Olympic Committee meeting in his capacity as chairman of International Table Tennis Federation athletes’ commission. He is also vice-chairperson of the Indian Olympic Association athletes’ panel. He isn’t complaining, for these are roles that he “asked for”, although he says there are times he feels “maybe I’m doing too much of these things rather than focussing on my own sport”.
“I knew it will come at a cost. But I’m trying to balance it. Once you make it to the Olympics, then everything is worth it. The problem arises if we don’t; then we feel maybe we should’ve done this more.”
Timely reminders of his skills and brilliance on the table do come along. Like during the Ultimate Table Tennis, when his curving backhand winner on the move left Manika Batra awestruck on the other side of a mixed doubles match, or when his swift forehand was too much for Harmeet Desai to handle.
“It doesn’t have to remind me,” Sharath asserts. “I know I’ve still got it. In the sense, on a good day of Sharath Kamal you’ll always see some fantastic shots. I wish that it happens more often,” he adds smiling.
It has happened quite a lot over his two-decade long journey that has seen plenty of highs and its fair share of lows. Is the latest lull, coming at the tail end of a terrific career, tougher to deal with? “Philosophically, I can take it saying this is all part of the journey, and this is what I wanted. But at the end of the day, when you’re going for those matches and you lose slightly earlier than you wanted, then you feel, ‘Ah, maybe I could be doing some things better’,” he says.
That feeling is a little different when he loses to, say, compatriot Manav Thakkar. The 23-year-old, who idolises Sharath and often trains with him in Chennai, beat him in a National Ranking Championships final in October and also at the WTT Feeder Doha Round of 16 later that month.
“It doesn’t hurt me as much as it should. Because he (Manav) is one of us,” Sharath says. “That is where it’s a bit tough for the mental coach and coach to say, ‘C’mon man, buck up, you can’t have these losses’. And I’ll be like, ‘It's OK, he played well’.”
Currently, Manav is the India No.2 (ranked 87) behind Harmeet, which could make the singles qualification for the Olympics — the Asian qualifying event will be in May — interesting. Sharath isn’t even thinking about that at the moment.
“After February, I’ll have a rethink on what am I going to do and do I really want to get in there for singles. If we don’t qualify for the team, then I actually don’t have a plan. But if we qualify, then my complete focus will be just the team,” he says.
For now, seeking the match and mental sharpness this month and a ranking push in the next while working on soaking in that “intent” again, Sharath hopes to find what he is looking for in his table tennis. “It should be back,” he says. “Will be back? Well, that’s a question for me too.”