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“I am like wine – the older I get, the better I play” – Sharath Kamal

“I am like wine – the older I get, the better I play” – Sharath Kamal

Sharath Kamal

The face of Table Tennis in India has undergone a major change in the last few years and the pioneer for this change, has been Mr. Sharath Kamal. Currently ranked at world no. 44, he has recently finished at an all-time best of 6th position in the Asian tournament and has kept the Indian flag flying high at the international arena. Extremely down to earth and a very humble person, he spoke to Esssentially Sports, on behalf of India For Sports in an exclusive interview. Here are some of the excerpts:

Q:    You finished at an all-time best 6th in the Asian Cup recently, having beaten three of the world’s top 20 players. How was the experience?

I have played these players earlier as well. I have lost to them and I have beaten one or two of them earlier. But I would say, I was better prepared this time. I have been playing good for a while now, the last six months being especially adept. Playing in big tournaments got me to focus more and work specifically against these kind of top players. I had the time, and I practiced specifically just for this tournament, not participating in others. It started off very well and that was a good thing. The first match I played was against world no. 8. It would have been better if I was playing somebody lower, but the way I started and when I won, I knew it was coming through. The first match was the most important.

Q:      You have performed exceptionally well, be it winning three gold medals for India at the Commonwealth Games, or being the only Indian representing the country at the Olympics, or your current world ranking of no.44. You have done India proud. What kind of struggle did you have to undertake to get to this level?

It’s been a long way. I have been playing this sport for a long time now, being away from my family. I am training in Europe right now, since Europe is the hub for Table Tennis and it is easy to travel within it. In addition, you get to play a lot of matches; every weekend you have matches. Had I been living in India, I would have to spend a lot of money to travel. Hence, initially, I stayed in Spain for four years. Then I decided to take the next step in my career and came into Germany, which is the best as far as Table Tennis is concerned in Europe and the third best in the world. All the while, I have been away from family and country.  I feel happy that I have done so much for the sport and won these medals and if it was not for all those sacrifices, I don’t think I would have had that drive inside me to play so well.

Q:       To get this far is excellent. Do you think you can get better in the years to come?

I hope, I really do. To talk about the age, I am past my 30’s; so a lot of people are skeptical now. But at the moment, I am playing my career best Table Tennis, so it is going to be better from here. My club mates say, I am like wine – the older I get, the better I play.

Q:  A highlight of the Asian Cup was your win over your arch-nemesis, Singapore’s Gao Ning. You finally broke your losing streak against him. Was it more a question of mind games?

I think I have lost the count of the number of times I lost to him; I hadn’t beaten him even once. But every time, it’s been close and somehow in the end he got past me. Not this time though. Earlier, when I always lost to him, I used to think that I have got close. This time however, I was quite clearly the better player in the match and was a lot more confident owing to my earlier wins. To top it all, I was playing on the home ground. So, I wouldn’t say it was mental, instead there were a lot of other factors which helped me to win that match. It was also a bit of an easier win. Probably if it would have got closer, I would have buckled down under pressure. Nonetheless, I won it quite easy.

Q:     Who would you say was the strongest opponent you’ve had to face till now? What made him so challenging?

I would say the Chinese players have been really hard. In this tournament too, I lost to world no. 3 in the group stages in a very one-sided match. I have been playing good, but the Chinese are still two steps ahead of all the others. I think it’s getting really hard to find a way around them as they seem to be quite strong in every aspect. We need to get them under pressure and then find out where they are weak. However, to get them under pressure is the real challenge.

Q:  Would you say this has been the best phase of your career so far?

I hope this is just the beginning. The 2016 Rio Olympic Games is where I want to be at my best. It’s almost one and a half years from now, and that’s what I am looking at. I have been shaping good and my form too has been good; I wish to keep the graph going higher from here.

Q: As an Indian sports enthusiast, where will we see you playing next?

I’ll be at the World Championships in China, the end of month from 26th April to 3rd May.

Q: Where do you want to see yourself in the next 5-10 years?

In the next 5 years, my main goal is to reach top 25 of the world. It would be a dream come true if I can reach top 20. There is also Rio Olympic Games where I want to give my best shot and then comes the Commonwealth Games. After that I really have to see how my body copes up with it and more importantly, how my family copes up with it.

Q: You have been the pioneer for the change in India’s position in Table Tennis. What would you say about India’s ranking among the Asian countries and what kind of potential do you see in the new crop of players?

There is a lot of talent and a lot of young players have been doing really well. There is an abundance of exposure these days due to globalization and technology, which we did not enjoy. I hope they put India on the Table Tennis map of the world. At the moment we are still a developing country as far as Table Tennis is concerned.

About me being the pioneer, I don’t think I would take the credit; it just so happened. There have been players before me. As for example, Chetan Baboor, one of the top players we have ever seen, was my idol back in my younger days. He broke into the top 70s in the world and he showed the way. I am just following him. It’s not just me, there are a lot of external factors as well. Its good and its bad. On the brighter side, I would like people to take up Table Tennis. Idolizing me, at the very least, inspires people to take up the sport; not for the monetary gain and benefits, but just because one likes playing.

Q:  Do you think Table Tennis is getting enough encouragement and recognition in India?

It’s getting better, which is also the reason we are playing better. Indian mentality is that if we start today, tomorrow we should beat the Chinese. But it doesn’t happen that way. For an engineering degree they don’t mind spending 14 years of studying but when it comes to sport or any other activities, they want quick results. The generation before us was worse, we got better. We got more funding from the government and there is a lot of private companies coming in. In addition, the central govt. has been getting a lot of incentives to fund sportspersons. I just hope more and more people play and keep the flag flying high.

Q:   A lot of sports leagues are now successfully running in the country. Do you think there is a need for a professional Table Tennis league along the lines of the IPL or ISL?

The federation is thinking about it and probably in the next year or so, they should be able to organize a Table Tennis league. I think it is necessary to have a Table Tennis league. Although, it is easier to bring players from abroad to promote the sport on television, I think the league is a better format.

Well, we at Essentially Sports work towards change aiming to change in the way people see sport and its icons. We’re trying to do our bit in reforming the sport system in India.

 So, on a personal level:

Q: How highly do you regard the Indian sports setup? And what in your opinion is the reason why countries like China win so big in major sporting events?

Why aren’t there so many engineers and doctors in china? This is the first question I ask. The amount of energy and time we put in to become engineers and doctors, is the amount they put in to become sportspersons. India has always been an academic-oriented country. So as a sporting nation, we are very young. We have won about 4 medals in the Olympics in 100 years of Olympic Games. Sports in India is an extra-curricular or to some probably a time-pass. When I was younger and said I wanted to play Table Tennis, they asked me if I had a job and how I would earn a living. They could not accept this as a profession and understand that it too requires a 100% of time and energy. Though this mindset has been changing, we cannot compare ourselves with China where the govt. supports a lot of sporting activities and people are not only interested in sports and but also have a lot of knowledge about them. The investment process has been going on for us as well. So, slowly but surely we will be there.

Q: India was dominated by a single sport for a long time now. But over the recent years the scenario is slightly shifting towards sports like Badminton, Shooting, and Boxing. Do you think we are finally growing into a multi-sport nation?

A lot of people keep complaining that cricket gets a lot of importance. On the other side, cricket is followed in large numbers since the BCCI invested a lot in the 80s when India won the World Cup. That’s when people started to recognize cricket. We need superstars who can win at international level which we didn’t have in other sports until now. Cricket was there and considering the fact that it is played by only 11 or 12 countries, whatever you do is international when you play for India. Only in the recent times, Badminton, Shooting, Wrestling, etc. have been doing really well. People will start to follow the game when the titles start rolling in.

Interview Courtesy: India For Sports
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