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Sharath Kamal: Table tennis star's journey to the Khel Ratna

The table tennis star has had a fantastic year, including three gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. He speaks to Lounge about his journey to the top

Sharath Kamal at the Commonwealth Games earlier this year.
Sharath Kamal at the Commonwealth Games earlier this year. (Reuters)

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Table tennis player Achanta Sharath Kamal is 40 years old, a four-time Olympian and seven-time gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games. In the off-season, rather than cooling his heels and reminiscing about past glories, he ventures into the searing Chennai sun and sets new targets. “I play basketball at 12 noon, on an open ground, in Chennai,” he tells Lounge. “Sometimes, I go for a run at 11 in the morning. I finish my training and then do some kind of fitness work. Chennai at that time of the day in unbelievably hot; even five minutes in the sun will completely drain you.” The mid-day sessions are meant to get Sharath out of the comfort zone, find his edge, and try to push beyond. “Physically as well as mentally.”

This discipline, and dedication to his craft, is why Sharath is still playing. “Not just playing, but peaking at 40,” he says. That is no exaggeration. At the Birmingham Commonwealth Games (July-August) this year, over a whirlwind 11 days, Sharath bagged three golds and a silver—a medal in each of the four events he participated in. That included a triumph in men’s singles, where the Indian star picked a gold 16 years after his first at the 2006 Melbourne Games. Perhaps he needed this kind of jaw-dropping, undeniable feat to win the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award, the highest sporting honour in India.

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Sharath Kamal with his men's singles gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.
Sharath Kamal with his men's singles gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. (Reuters )

“It's come pretty late in my career but better late than never,” Sharath had told news agency PTI after the announcement. On 15 November, the list of India’s sports awardees was officially announced. After a generous distribution of Khel Ratna awards last year—when 12 Indian athletes, including Tokyo gold medalist Neeraj Chopra and football legend Sunil Chhetri were conferred with the honour—Sharath is the sole winner in 2022.

Within a day of him winning the award, Sharath was also appointed on the Athletes’ Commission of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), and elected vice-chairperson of the recently-formed newly-constituted Athletes’ Commission of the Indian Olympic Association. “It has been a fantastic week,” says Sharath, while admitting that he has to figure out a way to fit in the new responsibilities in his already packed schedule as an active athlete. “I was expecting the Khel Ratna after the CWG (performance), but to be the only one to get it, is a great achievement. Because it’s across all sports, when you look at it, India is doing so well in many of them. It is a fantastic moment for me and for Indian table tennis.”

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Afterall, Sharath, fondly called ‘Anna’ by Indian athletes, has witnessed, and been an integral part of, the transformation of table tennis in India from a recreational sport to a mainstream one. “Sport was seen as a hobby or extra-curricular activity back then,” he says of the time when he started playing. “When I wanted to take it professionally, a lot of people didn’t understand what it means. There was no support.”

Having picked up the sport at the age of four, he has gone on to become one of the most consistent performers on the international stage. He made his Olympic debut at the 2004 Athens Games and produced India’s best result—a third round finish—in table tennis at the Tokyo Games last year. He reached a career high of 30 in 2019 and is currently amongst the top-50 in the world. In a career spanning 20 years, he has reached rare highs.

But there have been lows as well. Sharath outlines the three instances that tested him the most, and toughened him for the road ahead. “The first big setback was when I was quite young. I struggled to break into the national team early on.” These were his wilderness years, roughly from the age of 15 to 20. It taught him not to take anything for granted, and work for every win. In 2003, he won his first senior national championship, he has won nine more since, the most recent coming this April.

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“The second tough phase was when I suffered a slump in 2011,” says Sharath. “I slipped to 94 in the rankings, started losing in nationals. That’s when I worked on the technical side.” During his formative years in the game, there was a greater emphasis on the forehand. But the advances in equipment, and a younger generation has changed that. “Now, you needed to be strong on both wings. I had to work a lot to improve my backhand, then work with my coaches to see how it fit into my game, which was forehand-driven.” At 29, Sharath went back to the basics, reassembled his game, and updated it, in order to take on the best in the game.

The third career-turning point came in 2015, when he was sidelined with a hamstring injury. “I didn’t know if I could come back to play at all,” he says. “Thankfully, I did. That’s when I understood how important it was to be fit.” For the last seven years, Sharath has made fitness the cornerstone of his performance. Table tennis has become faster and more explosive, and he has kept pace. Sharath wakes up at five in the morning, and puts in eight hours of work daily to keep his mind and body sharp.

All the work he has put in over years to become a fitter, well-rounded athlete, resulted in his peerless performance during the Commonwealth Games. Having participated in four events, Sharath ended up playing 21 matches in the span of 11 days. He won 19 of those: winning a gold medal in the men’s team event, a gold in mixed doubles, a silver in men’s doubles and a gold in men’s singles. In the singles final, he defeated second seed Liam Pitchford of England, 11 years his junior, 4-1 to conclude his extraordinary Games.

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“It's the best thing that happened in my professional life until now,” says Sharath. “But it was all meticulously planned. I sat down with my coach, fitness trainer, nutritionist, mental coach, and figured out what was required.

“In 2014, I had lost out on the CWG medal due to fatigue,” he adds. “By the last day I was completely dead. I understood that and started working on it. In 2018, it was better. But 2022 was the best, as far as the load management, recovery was concerned. Every night, post my practise sessions or match sessions I used to go to the pool, get my contrast work done—with hot and cold water, go for a swim, eat well, rest well. Get eight hours of sleep. Take care of activations, rehab, stretching. There were days when I played six matches, three in each session. It was hectic, and I was prepared for that.”

The method in no way diminishes the madness of it all.

For outsiders, looking in, his sustained run of excellence seems incredible. But even Sharath, who has plotted his longevity would not have quite predicted it.

“I don’t know if anyone would think that they will be playing at 40, and peaking at 40,” he says. “I personally also thought that around 30-32 will be my best years, and who knows what will happen after that. But things are falling into its place at this point in time; I am playing the best table tennis of my life.” Sharath Kamal, the old trailblazer, is still leading the way.

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