Tokyo Olympics 2020: In pandemic-affected year, Sharath Kamal confident of realising 17-year-old dream
'17 years after my first Olympics at Athens, I have hope that my dream will turn into a reality at Tokyo. I’m as close to making that dream into a reality as I can be,” said Sharath Kamal.
Sharath Kamal has been dreaming about winning a medal at the Olympics for 17 years now. The first time he went to the Games, at Athens in 2004, he was a 22-year-old youngster being hailed as the next big thing in the sport. But after two more appearances at the Olympics—Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016—Sharath will go to Tokyo in July this year as a battle-hardened veteran more confident of his own abilities than he has ever been.
“We have a lot of confidence and faith that this is going to be the best Olympics in terms of performance, and results,” Sharath said on Wednesday at a virtual press conference facilitated by the Sports Authority of India.
A large part of this optimism stems from his pairing with Manika Batra in mixed doubles and his own singles rankings and form going into Tokyo 2020.
Sharath was the senior-most member of the Indian men’s table tennis team which won a historic bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games. He followed that up with a pathbreaking bronze in the mixed doubles event with Batra at the Jakarta event.
“My ranking does the talking for my confidence. This is the best ranking I’ve had going into an Olympics. In 2004, I was just entering the professional circuit. In 2008, I was just breaking into the Top 100. At Rio 2016, I was just coming back from an injury. I was World No 32 in 2015. But then the injury happened which kept me out for six months. Just qualifying for the Olympics at Rio took a toll on my body. I really couldn’t aim for a lot at Rio,” said the current World No 32. “But this time around, we have been doing consistently well for the past four-five years. The rankings have been very consistent. I’ve been in the top 40s for over two years now in singles.”
The Asian Games bronze medal with Batra, Sharath said, gave them belief that they could return home with a medal at Tokyo. En route that bronze, they vanquished then World No 5 pair from South Korea, Lee Sangsu and Jeon Jihee in the last 16 (The World No 19 Indian pair also beat the Korean pair, who were ranked World No 5, in the final of the Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament in March this year to seal their Tokyo spot). Then in the quarters, Sharath-Batra defeated North Korea’s Cha Hyo Sim and An Ji Song.
The mixed doubles event at Tokyo Olympics will feature just 16 pairs, which means Sharath-Batra will have to win just three matches to win a medal.
“In doubles, the main reason (for this optimism) is the Asian Games bronze medal. Manika and I paired up for the first time for Jakarta. That’s when we started to believe, that if we can do it at the Asian Games we have a fair chance at the Olympics. Asia being the powerhouse in table tennis, the best teams are from Asia: China, Japan, South Korea. Then there are the countries like Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore. Then we beat another North Korean pair in the quarters.”
While mixed doubles does offer Sharath the best chance he’s ever had of winning a medal at the Olympics, his doubles training for the Games has been anything but smooth. While his training base is in Chennai, Batra lives in Pune, which has been under a lockdown for over a fortnight now due to a spike in coronavirus cases in the state of Maharashtra.
The duo had one short training camp in Chennai last week. While the next camp is still uncertain due to the state of COVID-19 in the country and the ensuing restrictions, the plan is to get six-seven days of solid doubles training each months before the Olympics. There has also been talk of inviting foreign players to India for valuable sparring. That though seems unlikely given the second wave currently ravaging India.
“We’ve divided our training sessions. In the first part we wanted to focus on our footwork and coordination. In the second part we wanted to go deeper into the tactical aspect,” said Sharath.
On being asked what made their partnership click, he said, “Because of her different style of play, she’s able to slow down the game fantastically well. And then I can speed it up. That way we are able to complement each other very well. That is where opponents are not very comfortable playing us. So they try and finish the rally as fast as possible. Our thing is to prolong the rally and try and make the opponent move much more than what they should be doing.”
While Sharath said that their training and competition regime is not ideal, it’s still much better than the situation last year.
“This is not the best way to prepare in an Olympic year. The training regime, exposure trips and competitions are not as it should be in an Olympic year. But I’m in a much better situation mentally than I was in last year. I knew that I needed to keep myself active, but I didn’t know for what. When I go to practice, can I touch the table? We had no information. That was very hard. It was worse last year personally. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
“Now at least we have some sense of direction. Some kind of goal to look forward to,” he said. “17 years after my first Olympics, I have hope that my dream will turn into a reality at Tokyo. I’m as close to making that dream into a reality as I can be."
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