POSSIBLE. A Sharath Kamal keeps uttering this word for the question ‘is it possible to win a medal in singles at the Olympics?’ Taken in isolation, it’s a ridiculous assertion. Even if Indian players have regularly qualified in table tennis, they have never really challenged the elite. The paddlers’ record is so poor they have, between them, managed to win just three matches since 2004. But Sharath, responsible for two of those three wins, makes a compelling argument.
“I have never gone into an Olympics such highly ranked, I am No 32. I have a fair chance in singles and a very big chance in mixed doubles (with Manika Batra),” he tells this daily. “We beat the World No 5 in the final round of qualification (in Doha). If we are able to beat the World No 5, we should be able to take on most of the pairs in the Olympics. That is why I think in mixed, we stand a very fair chance to win a medal. We have beaten a couple of pairs who are in the top eight in the rankings.
We have lost to them as well. But both of us know what it takes to prepare for these big matches.” The size of the draw is another big plus point. With just 16 pairs, winning two matches will put the Asian Games bronze medallists in a semifinal. To work towards this, the pair put in a lot of behind-thescenes work in Doha. To ensure the pair keeps up the momentum and builds some continuity ahead of the Games, they will train together at some point, either in Pune (depending on the Covid situation) or Chennai sometime in the next two months. The 38-year-old is also hopeful of going beyond the second round in the singles competition, something he has never done in his previous Olympics.
“This will be my best Olympics in terms of performance and results,” he says. Why does he say that? After ‘sulking’ in the initial part of lockdown last year, he got down to work. Not his skills but he took a good hard look at his metabolism before deciding to completely unders t a n d h i s b o d y mechanics. “I think in the last 10 years, this is the best I have felt (physically and mentally). We went into a lot of details during the Covid- 19 lockdown, breaking down my complete body mechanics. We tried to figure out what’s working and what’s not.” A big part of that exercise was to to prevent his back from tightening after multiple matches and to avoid sharp shoots of pain after tournaments. The Chennai player is of the opinion that it’s brought about the desired effect.
“This is the first time that after five tournaments, I feel nothing pain-wise. We worked on it in a very scientific manner. Even now my trainer wants me to lose a few more kilos but it’s very tough now (laughs). As I always say, even the water I drink is turning into fat. But, yes, really happy with the shape I am in heading into the Olympics.” That’s the one qualifier he inserts to a medal chance at Tokyo. “If I am in this kind of shape in the next three months, it is possible (a singles medal),” he says.
“But it’s a long drawn tournament, need to be at the top of my game for almost eight-nine days. That’s something I will have to figure out. At the CWG, we had to play all 15 days but I wasn’t at the top of all my game. At the Olympics, you cannot afford to do that.” Amid the usual suspects of wrestling, shooting, boxing and badminton, Sharath & Co. could make table tennis compelling viewing from an Indian perspective.