<
>

Sharath Kamal: Making Olympic quarters my personal goal

Warren Little/Getty Images

Achanta Sharath Kamal breaks into a groan as he speaks of the Rajnikanth-starrer Kabali. Admittedly a huge fan of the Tamil superstar, one of India's top table tennis players rues that he will be away training in Europe when the first day-first show hysteria envelopes the southern state on July 15.

Having moved to Europe at the age of 22, turning out for clubs there, and spending close to 10 months away from home in a year, he knows it is all part of the bargain. With table tennis holding little monetary benefit in India, most top players in the country are left with little choice but to participate in European club leagues to sustain themselves professionally.

Today, at 33, staring at his third Olympic appearance, Sharath, currently ranked 69 in the world, picks realism over optimism. "Making the Olympic quarterfinals is my current personal goal. I don't want to talk big about winning a medal and then blame it on the weather or the table if I lose early. Once in the quarterfinals, a medal is just a step away," he says.

India will, for the first time, have a four-member table tennis team at the Olympics. Apart from Sharath, the other Indian players who have qualified for Rio include Soumyajit Ghosh, Manika Batra and Mouma Das. Sharath lost in the final round of qualifying at the Japan Open earlier this month to France's Gauzy Simon. He will train at Germany, Denmark and Sweden with different players over the next month and could also be joined by Soumyajit.

A hamstring injury in May last year brought Sharath's life to a screeching halt. It was not until this April that he could hold a racket again, playing with a plastered back at the South Asian zone Olympic qualifying event in Hong Kong.

"There were times when I drove to physio sessions in Germany and couldn't gather myself to get out of the car. I was in a lot of pain. I would just sit in the car, sometimes up to half an hour. I thought this is it. My career is over."

Standing tall at a little over six feet, the European style of play came naturally to Sharath, stationing himself at least four feet away from the table. This opposed to the Chinese style, the other prominent proponent of the sport, which is characterised mainly by playing close to the table.

"As a tall player, the tendency to move away from the table was always there. With height you ensure greater coverage of the table. It's hard for the ball to get past your racket."

The flip side, though, is that you tend to be bending almost through the entire session to keep yourself in line with the ball's trajectory, which in turn affects the back. "That's what happened to me. Back injuries are very common for tall players in this sport," adds Sharath, who plays for German club Borussia Dusseldorf. He trains with his part-time personal coach Linus Menstren for 100 days in a year.

The injury also meant that he had to switch his style to suit his inability to move fast. As an aggressive player who relies more on his forehand shots, Sharath has had to position himself mostly at the middle of the table and play a more controlled game.

"I knew I could finish a ball but I couldn't move quick enough for it. I was getting disappointed and depressed playing that way. Now thankfully, I'm back to my natural game."

Sharath's maiden Olympic appearance at Athens in 2004, two years after joining the national team, was more of 'star trek', he admits over a laugh.

"On the first day, this guy walked into the dining area. He looked familiar," he says. "I soon realised I was sharing the table with Roger Federer. A little while later Andy Roddick walked in wearing a torn denim shirt and a cap in reverse. I was like 'Oh boy, my Olympics is made!'". At the following Games in Beijing though, he was a lot more prepared. He lost to Austria's Chen Weixing in the second round of the singles event.

What came as a heartbreak for Sharath, though, was not being able to qualify for the London Olympics in 2012. Things had changed on the personal front that year - he had turned a father, and could not keep pace with the evolving game.

"I don't think I balanced my life well when I turned father. Also I wasn't able to adapt to the game well enough. While most of the others had become both flank players I was still trying to strike a balance between my forehand and backhand games."

Changing clubs the year before also took its toll. With his club Grafelfing shutting down in 2011, he was forced to move to Bremen.

So after so many years in the sport does he handle losses better?

"It's actually worse now," he says. With age, Sharath reveals, it is only the results that count for him. "Earlier I was more performance-oriented, now I just want to make the most of my remaining playing career. Every match counts."

A conversation with Sharath would not be complete without talk of his ubiquitous bandanna. He laughs, then pauses for a bit before saying, "I wanted to give table tennis in India an identity."