After the heady highs of the past few months ― where India have had historic medals at both the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games in Jakarta-Palembang, not to mention that paddlers like G Sathiyan and Manika Batra have broken new ground in the world rankings ― Indians are ready to win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, believes veteran table tennis star Sharath Kamal.
The Tokyo Olympics will see the mixed doubles event ― the event where Sharath and Manika Batra won a bronze at the 2018 Asiad ― being introduced for the first time. Moreover, the pool will just be a 16-pair one, which would increase the chances significantly.
“Mixed doubles is the best chance we have of winning a medal at Tokyo because there will be just 16 pairs there. So if you win three matches, you will find yourself among the medals. Besides, Manika and I have done well at the Asiad in the same event,” Sharath told reporters on the sidelines of a felicitation event organised by 11SPORTS on Thursday to celebrate him becoming the first table tennis player to be awarded a Padma Shri.
“In fact, just qualifying for the Olympics in mixed doubles will be harder than actually competing at Tokyo 2020 since there are just 16 spots available. Mixed doubles qualifying will be through the Pro Tour tournaments this year. It’s a ranking of the complete year, so we need to perform consistently throughout.
“On the other hand, in singles we are pretty sure we will make it through. The emphasis for us is more on team events and mixed doubles because those are places where we have not made it. In singles, if we don’t make it through any of the tournaments, which is very unlikely, we will still make the cut due to our ranking.”
Sharath also said that in 2019, his aim would be to break into the top 20 rankings in the world. The 36-year-old is currently placed 33rd in the world.
“The major target in my future plans is Tokyo Olympics. Especially after winning two bronze medals at Asian Games, it gives us a lot of belief that a medal at the Olympics is a possibility. At the Asian Games, the competition was very high. Most of the teams which were there will also make it to the Olympics in Tokyo, besides a few European teams. So, if we can win a medal at the Asiad, winning a medal at the Olympics is not a shot too far. We have started our preparations since January 2019. We have a roadmap. We’ve chosen a lot of tournaments, but we will narrow it down. Personally for me, the goal will be to get into the top 20 in 2019.”
January 2020 will see the first qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics, followed by qualifying events in April and May.
Sharath admits that players were still getting used to the new ranking system adopted by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) in 2028.
“The system is pretty new, it’s the second year of the new ranking system. So we still don’t know where to pick and choose. Earlier, I knew exactly which tournaments to play. But now it’s trial and error for us. You cannot play all the tournaments, you need time to practice and to rest. The younger players are still able to play a lot. The year before last, the younger players like Sathiyan and Manika and Harmeet played almost 15 tournaments in the year. That was also the reason why we had six top-100 male players and three top-100 players among women.
“But it’s very difficult to keep up. So we need to prioritise where to play. That’s the only way if we want to have a long career. We’re still formulating a plan,” he said.
Need to go to Europe gradually diminishing
After Chetan Baboor, Sharath was among the first Indian paddlers to move to Europe for months at a stretch to play in the uber-competitive leagues. Having had long stints in Spain and Germany, Sharath has often credited the competitive matches there for his growth as a player.
His success only spurred more players like Sathiyan to travel to Europe to play in the leagues there.
However, Sharath believes that the need to go abroad to play in European leagues is slowly diminishing.
“The reason that Indian players want to play in European leagues is that there are a lot of players playing at a really good level, and there’s a system where every week you play a lot of matches. On weekends there are matches and throughout the week you train for them. It’s a consistent program for six to eight months which gives you good practice and matches. This helps you to have a variety of matches.
“But that thing has changed now. It’s not the only way. India has a big pool of players who are doing very well. The necessity to go to Europe has reduced. After me, a lot of players have gone. But now the circuit itself has become very full and tight. There are a lot of matches which the ITTF wants you to play in order for you to better your world ranking. Our domestic calendar is also pretty demanding. With Ultimate Table Tennis and other tournaments, there are a lot of tournaments which take place in India itself. So we don’t have a huge requirement to go to Europe. That’s changing slowly now.”
The one change that Sharath said he was glad about was the mindset of people towards the sport back home in India.
“People’s outlook towards the sport has evolved. Now they accept that we are professional sportspersons. When I first became national champion, people still sued to ask me if I am still continuing my education or what’s my other job. These days people don’t ask me that.”
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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2019 07:59:41 IST