Sharath Kamal: The table tennis star’s trip to Khel Ratna


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

Table tennis player Achanta Sharath Kamal is 40, a four-time Olympian and seven-time Commonwealth Games gold medalist. During the off season, rather than cooling his heels and reminiscing on past glories, he ventures out into the hot Chennai sun and sets new goals. “I play basketball at noon, in the open field, in Chennai”, he says Living room. “Sometimes I go running at 11 a.m. I finish my workout and then do some kind of fitness work. Chennai at this time of day is incredibly hot; even five minutes in the sun will completely wear you out. The mid-day sessions are meant to get Sharath out of her comfort zone, find her edge and try to go beyond that. “Physically as well as mentally.”

This discipline and dedication to his craft is the reason Sharath still plays. “Not just playing, but peaking at 40,” he says. It’s not exaggerated. At the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (July-August) this year, in a whirlwind 11 days, Sharath won three gold medals and one silver, one medal in each of the four events he entered. That included a men’s singles triumph, where the Indian clinched a gold medal 16 years after his debut at the Melbourne Games in 2006. Perhaps he needed that kind of breathtaking undeniable feat to winning the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award, India’s highest honor in sport.

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Sharath Kamal with his gold medal in men’s singles at the Commonwealth Games.

“It happened quite late in my career but better late than never,” Sharath told news agency PTI after the announcement. On November 15, the list of Indian sports winners was officially announced. After a generous distribution of Khel Ratna awards last year – when 12 Indian athletes including Tokyo gold medalist Neeraj Chopra and soccer legend Sunil Chhetri received the honor – Sharath is the only winner in 2022.

Less than a day after winning the award, Sharath was also appointed to the Athletes’ Commission of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and elected Vice Chairman of the newly constituted Athletes’ Commission of the Indian Olympic Association. . “It’s been a fantastic week,” says Sharath, while admitting he needs to find a way to fit into the new responsibilities of his already busy schedule as an active athlete. “I was expecting the Khel Ratna after the CWG (performance), but to be the only one to have it is a great achievement. Because it’s in all sports, when you look at it, India is doing so well in many of them. It’s a fantastic moment for me and for Indian table tennis.

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After all, Sharath, affectionately referred to as “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 sport. “At the time, sport was considered a hobby or an extracurricular activity,” he says of when he started playing. “When I wanted to take it professionally, a lot of people didn’t understand what it meant. There was no support.”

Having learned the sport at the age of four, he has become one of the most consistent artists on the international scene. He made his Olympic debut at the Athens Games in 2004 and had 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 in the top 50 in the world. In his 20-year career, he has reached rare heights.

But there were also lows. Sharath describes the three cases 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. Those were his desert years, around the age of 15 to 20. It taught him to take nothing for granted and to work for every win.In 2003 he won his first senior national championship, he has won nine more since, most recently in April.

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“The second difficult phase was when I suffered a crisis in 2011,” says Sharath. “I slipped to 94th in the standings, started losing at nationals. That’s when I worked on the technical side. During his formative years in the game , the focus was more on the forehand. But advances in equipment and a younger generation have changed that. “Now you had to be strong on both wings. I had to work a lot to improve my backhand , then working with my coaches to see how it fit into my game, which was forehand driven. face the best of the game.

The third turning point in his career came in 2015, when he was sidelined with a hamstring injury. “I had no idea if I could come back to play,” he said. “Fortunately, I did. That’s when I understood how important it was to be in good shape. For the past seven years, Sharath has made fitness the cornerstone of his performance. Table tennis got faster and more explosive, and it kept pace. Sharath wakes up at five in the morning and works eight hours a day to keep her mind and body fit.

All the work he has done over the years to become a fitter, more balanced athlete has resulted in an unparalleled performance at the Commonwealth Games. Having appeared in four events, Sharath ended up playing 21 matches in the space of 11 days. He won 19: gold in the men’s team event, gold in the mixed doubles, silver in the men’s doubles and gold in the men’s singles. In the singles final, he beat 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 has happened to me in my professional life so far,” says Sharath. “But everything was meticulously planned. I sat down with my trainer, my physical trainer, my nutritionist, my mental trainer and figured out what was needed.

“In 2014, I lost the CWG medal due to fatigue,” he adds. “The last day I was completely dead. I understood that and started working on it. 2018 was better. But 2022 was the best, in terms of load management, recovery was concerned Every night post my training sessions or game sessions I used to go to the pool, do my contrast work – with hot and cold water, to go swimming, to eat well, to rest well. Get eight hours of sleep. Take care of the activations, rehabilitation, stretching. There were days when I played six games, three in each session. C It was hectic and I had prepared for it.

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

To outsiders, looking into it, his sustained run of excellence seems unbelievable. But even Sharath, who plotted his longevity, wouldn’t have quite predicted it.

“I don’t know if anyone would think he’ll play at 40 and peak at 40,” he says. “I personally also thought that around 30-32 would be my best years, and who knows what will happen after that. But things are falling into place right now; I’m playing the best table tennis of my life. Sharath Kamal, the former pioneer, is still in the lead.

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