It's a balmy Thursday afternoon in Coimbatore and the Bharathiar University indoor sports stadium, situated in the backdrop of Maruthamalai Hills in the Western Ghat range, is buzzing, with the Inter-Institutional Table Tennis Championships going on. Amidst the cacophony of the plastic balls pinging off the racquets, I bump into Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, the youngest Indian paddler to enter the top 30s in the world, along with his Petroleum Sports Promotion Board teammates.
While enquiring about his schedule for the day, I scan around twice in search of known faces but I find none. Within a few seconds, however, a familiar voice pops up from behind, calling out my name. It's coming from a tall guy clad in a grey T-shirt and black track pants, carrying a backpack and quietly fiddling with his phone. I have to blink twice to grasp the fact that it's, in fact, Sharath Kamal.
Being used to his long hair and famed bandana, the Indian table tennis poster boy is virtually unrecognisable in his new 'The Rock' style look. Is it a footballer-inspired haircut? I ask. He quickly googles a rapper's picture with a chain, cap, oversized sunglasses and says, "Thug life look," with a wry smile, before explaining that he had shaved his hair at the venerated Tirupati temple as a ritual for his one-year-old son.
The energy in his body language is palpable as he gears up for his fourth Asian Games. The look isn't the only thing that has changed in Kamal's life over the last few years. There were days when he wanted to just quit table tennis, when he couldn't take it anymore and yet, three years down the line, he is on the cusp of his best ever world ranking.
The story of his journey has been one of a constant fight at every stage and reinvention. And as he heads to Jakarta in a few days' time, Kamal has the best chance of winning his and the country's first medal at the Asiad. The optimism stems from the fact that the Tamil Nadu-born paddler has been playing his best table tennis of late and has the support of the young, vibrant team he is leading.
"This Asian Games will be my fourth and probably the biggest chance I have ever had of winning a medal," Kamal says. "It's also because I personally have been doing very well for the last two, three years and along with me the team has been doing fantastic."
Kamal currently stands at 33 in the world, one behind his best ranking of 32, which he achieved in 2015 after the World Championships in China where he suffered a horrific career-threatening injury. During the second round match, his hamstring gave away from the hip bone. It was right around the time he was hitting his peak. But the next few months were spent in a wheelchair, on crutches and in depression. Loneliness and self-doubt had crept in and a wrong operation made it worse. The injury was close to finishing his career.
But step by step, Kamal headed towards resurgence, with his will and help of his support system – his family, German club Borussia Dusseldorf and coach Linus Mernsten. Back in 2013, Kamal had expressed his wish of hitting the top-30, to Mernsten. The Swedish coach expected a 'big bonus' in return, a cup of coffee.
Kamal was tantalisingly close but yet so far. "The basic thing was to keep him in a good mood and make him believe that he can come back stronger and to stay positive," Mernsten says of times during Kamal's rehab.
The Swedish coach also kept reminding Kamal of his pending coffee. It took a year to recuperate but finally, Kamal was back again on the court and the resurrection process had started.
"He loves the game and that's why he was able to come back. You can already feel by then (during the injury) that he was devastated inside but you felt that there was a spark that 'I will get back’ and his strong will, character and passion of the game made him come back,” says Mernsten.
"There were a few things we spoke about (after his injury) – practice as if you are in a match, don't waste time on basics anymore and keep the motivation and most important of all, keep the body fit and work on the physical fitness," the Swedish coach adds.
After putting on extra kilos and slowing down post-injury, Kamal worked hard on his fitness, which has played a crucial part in his success in the last couple of years.
"There is much more importance given to physical fitness because I got injured and then the rehab started and then I had to work a lot to get back my fitness. And now that fitness awareness is helping me take on the younger competitors, who are 10 years younger to me," says Kamal.
Kamal has been doing a lot of agility and interval training where the explosion coupled cardio workout is similar to the actual match. It helps in gaining explosivity. However, maintaining fitness is the most difficult part especially with constant travel and the cheap meals provided many a time.
"Every time, it's a constant fight within ourselves. It is a bit hard but that's the discipline that takes sportspersons to greater heights," says Kamal, who is happy with his fitness right now but will be happier if he can shed a few more kilos.
The other change that has been a crucial catalyst in his reinvigoration has been his move back to India in 2016 after 14-years in Europe. It has made him relaxed, more at peace and given him the freedom of choice.
"When we are playing the leagues, we are generally staying there in Europe for 10 months because the season is that long. And we have time to come home only for one month or so, so that's really less. Staying away from home, training all the time and with matches week in week out in the European League, there is pressure on you, there is always stress, you need to perform, you need to deliver. So now, I am off that. I am home, my family will not accept that I am home because I am not there so often (smiles) but at least I have moved back home. I am home every two months for a week or so, so there I have found my peace and I am more relaxed."
Having done his base work on technique, footwork and tactics in Europe, Kamal reckons it was the right time to move back home. Now, he doesn't have the pressure of performance week in week out and is able to pick and choose his tournaments, which allows him the time to prepare, experiment and work on technical aspects.
"There are a couple of times where I am not well prepared but I still go into a match just to check and try what's working and what's not. And even if I lose those matches early that's not taking off much of my confidence because I know that the bigger goal is some other tournament," he says.
"For example, three-four months prior to the Commonwealth Games, I wasn't playing so well. I wasn't hitting my peak but that didn't matter to me much because I knew I needed to play well three-four months later from there. So, the mind is at peace. Psychologically, I am with my family so that's giving me more time to prepare for the bigger tournaments."
Kamal gave himself nine to ten months to prepare for the CWG and came away with three medals (team gold, doubles silver and singles bronze). It also allowed him to work on his new Andro rubbers and blade (new sponsor) in the first three weeks of July, when he skipped the Korea Open.
Not just the physical and mental aspect, Kamal's backhand improvement, on which he was working since 2011, has played a key role. "Now, the backhand is stronger than the forehand, so people are confused. Even I myself am confused, 'Should I go for a forehand or a backhand. Earlier, there was no doubt," Kamal quips.
Kamal is frank to admit that the change from celluloid to plastic balls has helped his backhand play. The plastic balls have fewer rotations and suit his backhand powerplay.
At 36, Kamal is getting better with age. At the start of the year, he won record-equalling eighth national titles, which set the tone. He then reached the Round of 16 of Qatar Open a platinum event, clinching his first top-10 win (beat Japan's Koki Niwa) en route and won those three medals while leading India to a historic Commonwealth Games.
He went rampant at the World Championships in Sweden in May with 10 wins and just three losses and amassed the most points by any player - 2220, propelling India to their best finish since 1987 (12th) - 13th. It was probably the best performance of his career so far. He then reached the Round of 16 of the Australian Open which gave him more confidence with his new rubbers. In 2018, Kamal has had a 67 percent win percentage on Pro Tours, with 24 wins from 36 matches.
"I am way better than what I was (in 2015). I can see that there is so much improvement in my game and my mental attitude, physical strength, everything. I feel I am a much stronger player than what I was in 2015," Kamal says.
The competition from the younger crop in the country has played a part in making him stronger. "They keep pushing the bar and I am on the top so I need to push it further ahead," the 36-year-old explains.
After a historic performance at the CWG, expectations will be high but the Asian Games are a different ball game. The competition is much stronger as India will be competing against the Asian giants like China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Chinese Taipei. And this is where all the lethal weapons in his armoury will have to fire in unison.
"He (Kamal) should use all his experience in combination with his high motivation and his eagerness to reach new heights. I know he has the confidence. The confidence he gained after the World Championships is very, very valuable for him. And he knows that he can beat anybody on a good day. The challenge for him is to keep the body fresh for the whole tournament and know when to relax and when to switch on. Mentally, he should be clear and enjoy," advises Mernsten.
The top Asian players rely on speed and power while Kamal has an added weapon in variations which will make him different.
After the CWG heroics, the expectations have gone high but it's nothing new for Kamal. "I have always had expectations. Whenever I come down to India, people say 'now Sharath will win' even though the other guys are still good enough and when I lose, it's like 'how can he lose?'"
"Every time we played for India, it was mandatory for me to win both men's singles matches, so I've had a lot of pressure in my career. I've fallen prey to that a few times and I have risen above it a few times. So, at this age now, with the experience I've got, I am able to handle it much better and take the pressure in a positive way more than the negative way. It's about making it more positive for yourself and standing there by example. Because when I stand there by example, everyone else does well," he adds.
An in-form Kamal could be the best possible thing to happen to India at the Asian Games. Their biggest chance is in the team event. Kamal's guidance, knowledge and motivation will be the crucial driving force for the team to fire collectively, just like at the CWG.
And in a year of many firsts for table tennis in the country, if Kamal can drive his young team to new heights, he will hit a new peak in his career and finally end India's wait for a maiden medal.
And possibly, Mernsten's wait for his cup of coffee.
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Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 14:58:58 IST