Achanta Sharath Kamal has been a flag-bearer of Indian men’s table tennis for quite some time now.
The country’s highest ranked paddler (the only Indian in the top-100 with a world ranking of 70) will be spearheading the billion hopes in the upcoming 19th Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships, which is scheduled to be held in New Delhi from May 5-9.
The 30-year-old from Tamil Nadu has happy memories in the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships – having won the men’s singles gold in its 16th edition in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
Sharath, who once attained a world ranking of 39, also won the singles gold in the 2006 Commonwealth Games held in Melbourne.
Happily married and father of a two-year-old daughter, the Indian Oil deputy manager speaks in an exclusive interview.
Tell us a bit about your early days in table tennis?
In my initial years, I was coached by my father, Srinivasa Rao and uncle, Muralidhara Rao. Both of them started their coaching career even before I was born. I used to accompany my father to the club since the age of two. I started playing the sport since the age of five.
When did you really make it big in the domestic circuit?
I got an opportunity to participate in the national training camp in 2002, and ever since I haven’t looked back as in the same year I reached the National Championships singles final.
Can you throw some light on your first international tournament as a singles player?
I made my junior international debut in the 2000 Junior Asian Championships, while my senior international debut happened at Bangkok in 2003. At the Bangkok event, I won all my matches in the team championships and lost in the qualifying round of the singles.
You won the 16th Commonwealth Table Tennis Championship gold in Kuala Lumpur in 2004 – the same year you got the Arjuna Award. Could you recall those memories for us?
2003 and 2004 are memorable years for me – I won the national singles crown for the first time in 2003 and became India’s No.1 and continued my improved form in 2004 by winning the Commonwealth Championships (becoming the first Indian to win that title). We also won the teams’ title and then I qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games 2004. So 2004 was a big year for me and I was awarded the Arjuna award for my efforts in August 2005. Gradually from winning national-level tournaments, I also started winning in the international circuit.
How would you rate your gold-winning effort at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, when you beat crowd favourite Australian William Henzell in the final?
I always cherish the memories of my 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games gold-winning effort. The title win gave me a lot of recognition in table tennis circles. People started to recognize me as the guy with the bandana and long hair. The final was breathtaking as I won a close seven setter where William Henzel was giving me a run for his money. Both of us were in very good shape, we beat a lot of good players in the earlier rounds; he had a little edge playing in front of his home crowd. I was surprised to see a lot of Indians in the crowd. It was the last day of the Games, and many other sportspersons from the Indian contingent were also there.
You had a club stint in Spain for a club called San Sebastian de los Reyes till 2009. Can you tell us a bit about it?
After I won the gold in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, lot of European clubs noticed me. I started getting some offers to play in the European club leagues. I accepted such an offer to play in Spain and continued to play for them for four seasons. The Spanish league was competitive but by the end of my fourth year the financial situation was going bad and I shifted to Germany where I had a wonderful stint, which helped to establish myself in the German league as well.
You won the US Open table tennis men’s championships held at Grand Rapids, Michigan in July 2010. You beat the defending champion Thomas Keinath of Slovakia in an absorbing tussle. Your memories.
2010 was a tremendous year in my career, winning back-to-back international titles, reaching a world ranking of 39 winning the Commonwealth Games gold medal. The US open was an important title and it wasn’t a easy win at all. I was stretched to the limit by Keinath Thomas where I clawed my way back from 1-3 down and went on to win with the minimal difference of 2 points in the last set.
I hit a purple patch during that period, starting with the Indian Open where I reached the semifinals, then I won the US Open and followed up winning the Egypt Open.
You played in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics but failed to make the cut for the 2012 Olympics. How would you sum up your Olympic experience?
Playing in the Olympics is any sportsperson’s dream and it was not any different for me. Although I missed out on the London Olympics, I’m hoping to end my Olympic experience with a medal in my bag. My first Olympics was like Alice in Wonderland – I was watching sports celebrities dine with me, travel with me, relax with me, workout with me and all of this just left me feeling a new high. I had specially prepared for the Beijing Olympics, reached the third round and lost narrowly to Chen Wexing of Austria. I’m upbeat about qualifying for the 2006 Rio Olympics; hopefully I will bring home a medal.
You are 30 now. Would you take another shot at the Olympics?
Yes of course, I would like to win a medal and I’m working hard towards achieving that.
You have won the national crown six times. Which has been the most cherished?
I cherish all the six wins – winning a national crown is always special
What kind of rivalry you share with Soumyajit Ghosh – somebody who looks up to you for your guidance?
The rivalry is on table but off the table I’m his well-wisher and a senior, who looks to guide him. That’s my principle towards younger players. This is in turn, makes me prepare hard too.
Why are Indian table tennis players not being able to break into the top-20?
The day is not far and we will do it soon. Not just one player but a bunch of them. We are getting better (working towards getting better) and it is only a matter of time.
How many years of competitive table tennis Sharath Kamal has left in his tank?
I haven’t really thought about it as right now, my aim is to play in the 2016 Rio Olympics, I will take it from there.
Who is your favourite table tennis player?
Belarusian Vladimir Samsonov makes me feel that table tennis is an easy sport to play. The grace and ease he has to table tennis is just fantastic.