When Achanta Sharath Kamal eventually looks back on his career, he'll probably consider his achievement on Sunday night a pretty significant one. Sharath beat World No.28 and former top 10 player Marcos Freitas 4-2 to win the Oman Open ITTF Challenge Cup. The title is only the second time the 37-year-old has won an ITTF pro tour title - and it comes a whole decade after he won his (and the country's ) first in Egypt in 2010.
But the victory that ended his pro tour drought almost never came to be since he nearly skipped the competition. Now that he's back home in Chennai, Sharath says is glad he made the decision last week to travel to Muscat.
"There was a lot of confusion. I wasn't really sure I was going. At first I was pretty sure the event was going to be cancelled," recalls Sharath, who, with his eight Commonwealth Games and two Asian Games medals, is perhaps the most accomplished player of his sport in India.
On March 13, the day Sharath would play his first match of the tournament, ITTF issued a statement that it was suspending all tournaments until the end of April. In addition, there was the concern posed by the Indian government's travel advisory that Indians who had recently travelled to certain countries, including Italy, Spain, China, South Korea and Japan, would be quarantined upon their arrival in India.
While Oman was not named in the Indian government's advisory, the middle eastern country had identified 19 cases of the virus. "In this scenario, you don't know whether the rules would change again. You aren't sure what the airports policy would be," Sharath says.
Eventually, he made the decision to travel after all. The fact that he had a direct flight from Chennai to Muscat was factored in.
"If I had to catch a connecting flight from either Delhi or Mumbai, I probably wouldn't have done it. In Chennai, things are still a little less tense at the airports," he says. Another incentive was that the Oman Open was (at that time) the last competition he would get to play in before the all-important Asian Olympic qualifiers, originally scheduled to be held in Bangkok from April 6-12 (That tournament, too, has been postponed).
"Omaṇ was the last bit of match practice I would have got before the Olympic qualifiers. Winning a title is good but it was more important to me for my preparations for the Olympic qualifiers."
Long before the international calendar had been thrown into disarray by the spread of the virus, Sharath had planned to compete in Oman.
"I'd had my schedule set from November last year. Back then, I'd started to lose weight and get faster and more explosive from then on. I'd started reaching my peak in January this year. After that, it was simply about getting match fit."
Sharath was looking like he was hitting top form, too. Even though the Indian men's team failed to earn an Olympic quota at the World Team qualifiers towards the end of January, Sharath individually had a good tournament, winning two of his three singles matches and another two out of three doubles matches. "This was a very critical phase of training known as periodisation. And I was very happy with how my training was going along," he says.
"I wasn't going into the tournament expecting to win. I was just looking to get ready for Bangkok. But after I saw the draw, I thought I could do well and after I reached the semifinals here, I realised I had a decent chance to go all the way. I was hitting the ball cleanly and moving well."
Bonus or not, Sharath compares this win favourably to his first on the ITTF World Tour in Egypt ten years back.
"I was obviously much younger then. That win came when my career graph had just started going up. I had just broken into the top 50 around then. But this time around, I'm a much more complete player. I've actually reached the best ranking of my career (World number 38) just a few weeks ago. My backhands were usually the weakest part of my game but this time, I was really whipping them into Freitas in the final."
This improvement is something that has come even as Sharath has learned to understand his body a lot better.
"When I was young I'd always be switched on. Now as I'm older, I've learned when to switch off and when and how to get into match shape. It takes longer because physically I'm not 28 years old anymore," he says.
And that is what makes his recent win bittersweet.
"It takes me two months to get into tournament shape. It's a bit funny that just as I started winning a tournament, I find that all table tennis competitions have been suspended."
The lack of clarity on the future of the season makes it harder still.
"I can't stay in match mode indefinitely. I don't know whether I should take a break, how long should it be. I'll have to find a balance. I'd been preparing for the Oman Open for the last two months and it's going to be difficult to structure my preparation in the absence of any clear goals."