The helplessness and negativity of last year, of not knowing where things are heading, has given way to a calmer, more-in-control Achanta Sharath Kamal who is keeping his eye firmly on the ball. Seventeen years after his Olympic debut, the ace Indian table tennis player is still hoping to win the medal for India.
“I’m standing right here with a hope that (winning a medal) is actually going to turn into a reality,” the 38-year-old said during an interaction facilitated by SAI (Sports Authority of India) media, on Wednesday.
“It’s as close as it can be and I’m really happy that I’ve been around for such a long time. In 2004, 2008, people didn’t even think we’d be able to get a medal. Now 17 years later, (since his first Olympics) we’re there especially in mixed doubles – which is just three rounds away from getting the medal.”
Sharath Kamal, who has represented India at the 2004, 2008 and 2016 Olympic Games, is the country’s highest ranked player at No 32. But India’s main medal hopes will hinge on mixed doubles, which will debut at this Olympics. Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra will represent India in the event at the Tokyo Games.
With the state of Maharashtra – where Batra trains – under severe restrictions, Sharath Kamal and Batra had a training stint in his hometown of Chennai.
“We had the first part of our training last week in Chennai. She was here. We had good sessions,” he said.
“We’re hoping to have at least five-six days of good practice every month, where we completely focus just on mixed doubles. We’ve divided our sessions: the first was to work on our footwork and coordination. The second was to go a bit more tactical. When it comes to complementing each other, we both do really well under pressure. Even as singles players that’s our forte – we can raise our level a notch when the match gets close.
“Because our different styles of play, she can slow down the game when needed, and I can speed it up. That way we can complement each other really well, and the opponent is not comfortable playing us. They want to finish the rally quickly, but we try to prolong the rally and make the opponent move much more than what they like.”
The Indian pair secured a berth for the Tokyo Games at the Asian Qualification tournament in Doha last month. It was one of the few tournaments the shuttlers have been able to compete in amidst the pandemic.
The Covid-19 outbreak last year changed life as we know it, and Sharath Kamal admits that the situation was difficult to cope with early on. There we times, he recalled, when he was called upon to give motivational talks to diverse groups – right from school kids to IITians (students of Indian Institutes of Technology) – but struggled to remain positive himself.
“I still remember back in August or September (2020), when things started opening up a little bit. But we were still scared and thinking about whether we should go to the hall, to the gym, do we continue to work or not work. You don’t know when you are going to play the next match,” said Sharath Kamal, who is supported by TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme).
“At that point in time, we did a lot of sessions with our mental training coaches. The most important thing what we figured, yes, there is a lot of panic, there is a lot of stress.
“But you can’t get stressed about things beyond your control. First we have to accept the fact that this is how it is. All we can do is build short-term goals and continue to work on it. That was how I could continue to go ahead.
“If I thought in August, that next July I need to be fit and fine and be my best, what is the roadmap? It is such a long-term goal that the stress and uncertainty will just eat me up. But then when I had short-term goals, I had to work on them, move ahead slowly. That was when I started to understand it.”
The veteran shuttler said that setting, and achieving, short term goals has helped him stay in touch with his dreams. Even though winning an Olympic medal has always been the ultimate goal, he has kept the journey interesting and motivation alive by picking up other accolades. Sharath Kamal has won four Commonwealth Games gold medals (the first of which came in 2006) and made a breakthrough at the much-tougher Asian Games in 2018, winning four bronze medals and one silver medal (in men’s doubles).
“Once that happened (medaling at Asian Games), then the Olympic dream becomes reality,” he added. “I’m lucky that I’m still fit and have the experience. This Olympic Games is going to be the best in terms of performance and result. I have done it for so long, now I am in the prime of my career so I can’t let it go now.”
Through the uncertainty of tournament schedules and training stints, the remote help from coaches and trainers, the 38-year-old is keeping the faith that his best is yet to come.