As a memorable 2022 draws to end, ESPN India picks ten images that tell the story of the most extraordinary Indian sports moments witnessed over the year. Our eighth pick features Sharath Kamal and Sreeja Akula with their gold medals from the 2022 Commonwealth Games in mixed doubles table tennis.
'I never found the right partner. I have now.'
It took 24 years for Indian table tennis GOAT, Sharath Kamal, to find his right mixed doubles partner.
Incredibly, Sharath's professional career began in the same year that his mixed doubles partner at the 2022 Commonwealth Games - 24-year-old Sreeja Akula - was born. And here they stood, as equals, as winners, gold medals dangling from their neck, cradling the CWG mascot in their hands, smiles as wide as the difference in their ages.
Yet, the most arresting part of the image is Sharath's look of absolute pride as he beamed at his junior. It's all the more meaningful because not two days prior, Sharath had found Sreeja crying in the changing room, after her narrow and draining singles semifinal loss to multiple Olympic, Asian, Worlds and Commonwealth Games medallist Feng Tianwei of Singapore. For a CWG debutant so close to a medal, an emotionally taxing loss of that sort could be devastating.
Thankfully, there was Sharath, comforting and motivating his mixed doubles partner to put her pain aside and give it another go. And what a go it was - the pair walked out moments later and won a five-game epic in their semifinal. They then eased past Javen Choong and Karen Lyne of Malaysia 11-4, 9-11, 11-5, 11-6 in the final.
The final couple of points had Sreeja at her aggressive best, forcing their opponents into errors. Exactly how Sharath had envisioned their partnership - him with some distance from the table, while Sreeja at her attacking best close to the table. A failed return of serve in the final point, and they had their win. With Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky' the soundtrack to their celebratory embrace, Sharath patted Sreeja on her back, as though coaxing her forward to fully embrace the spotlight. That dejection from earlier exorcised, and in its place a lesson in the very best aspect of sports - that you always have another chance. One that the 40-year-old Sharath knew all too well.
It was old hat for Sharath, with CWG medals numbering in double digits, but the first ever for Sreeja. Still, as they climbed up to the top step of the podium at the medal ceremony, the joy was writ large equally on both their faces. Sharath, almost with an 'I told you so' expression behind his smile - and justifiably so. For Sreeja it was the best moment of her life, with a partner that always treated her as an equal. And it showed.