Tokyo Olympics 2020: Sharath Kamal interview — ‘My fight against Ma Long will make every Indian kid believe they can also do it’
After a satisfying campaign, Sharath Kamal spoke to Firstpost about that match against Ma Long which won a lot of hearts as well as India's table tennis campaign in Tokyo, where he stands right now in his career and way forward for the sport in India.
"One of the best."
That is how Sharath Kamal describes India's table tennis campaign at the Tokyo Olympics.
After the disappointment at Rio 2016 where they didn't win a single match, the Indian paddlers bounced back to put in an improved performance in Tokyo.
World No 62 Manika Batra reached the 3rd round of women's singles, stunning the higher-ranked world No 32 Margaryta Pesotska en route. Sutirtha Mukherjee shone on debut with first-round win over higher-ranked Linda Bergstrom. While there were disappointments in mixed doubles with Sharath-Manika pair losing in the first round to world No 1 pair of Lin Yun Ju and Cheng I-Ching, and world No 26 G Sathiyan bowing out in the second, one of the highlights of the Games was the way Sharath Kamal played in Tokyo. And though he lost to Ma Long — who went on to win the gold — in the third round, his attitude, fight and gameplay won hearts all over the world.
The Indian veteran took a game off the reigning world and Olympic champion and arguably the greatest player of all time who would go on to become the first player to win two golds in men's singles in Olympics, and had him under the pump for a while in their 3rd round encounter. Sharath lost the game 1-4 but the way he fought against the great made him believe that this was the best match he's played in his career.
After a satisfying campaign, Sharath spoke to Firstpost about THAT match against Ma Long, India's TT campaign in Tokyo, where does he stand right now in his career and way forward for Indian table tennis.
We always talk about the feeling 'morning after', what was yours after THAT Ma Long match which won a lot of hearts and after coming back home?
After the Ma Long match, if the question is I woke up with what feeling? I would like to say I didn't sleep that night (laughs). Neend hi nahi aayi (I didn't get sleep). I was talking to my mental coach, coach, fitness coaches, all of them. I was super happy, super excited about the whole thing. After I lost the match and came out, I was just thinking and being analytical about the match ki yaar when will I get this kind of opportunity. I had one opportunity like this in 2013 against Timo Boll (of Germany). Same situation, I put that pressure, got him under the (pump) but once I lose the third set, that's it, the match just walks off. It goes away. So, I was feeling very bad. Means, I know that I played well, the coach was like 'wow, what a game yaar', very well played.
But personally, I was like arey yaar kyaa..(What man) it would have been better if I had won. Then when I actually came back and saw my phone, after almost two hours of the match getting over — I just took my phone out only after two hours because I was just cooling down, still talking to some people around there and other things — that's when I knew the kind of impact I had made on the whole Indian fraternity all over the world. Everybody, people from the US, Singapore, wherever I have gone and played, all messaged me saying that I have made them proud with the way I showed my attitude.
If you look at the score it was nothing great. I lost the first set 7-11, then won the second 11-8, then lost 3rd 11-13, and lost the next two 4-11, 4-11. There were only two games which were close, the second and the third games. And then, it's not the loss that everybody is talking about. It's not just the match that everybody was talking about. It was more the intent, the attitude, the way I fought that match, the way I stepped up my game, makes every Indian kid believe 'wow! if Sharath can do that, we shall also be able to do that'. So, I was really happy. That's exactly what I wanted to do on the court. That is exactly what I had planned before the match telling myself, 'okay I am going to play Ma Long... I am not going to say 'let me try my best and I'll see what happens'. No. I said to myself, 'it's a 50-50 game, we both start with 0-0, and if he needs to win, let him be the better player to win. He needs to earn every point. I am going to go the distance'. And that is exactly what happened. Even after coming back home, it's the same thing. Really happy I did it.
How would you sum up India's table tennis campaign in Tokyo?
One of the best. As I said even before we went to Tokyo. This is the strongest team we have fielded at the Olympic Games because we haven't had such high-ranked players. Everybody, Sutirtha, Manika all of them did extremely well. I am pretty much sure better days are still ahead.
What were the goals and expectations you had set personally and as a team, before leaving for Tokyo?
This is what I said before and what we did also, this is going to be my best Olympic Games as far as performance and results are concerned. And that's exactly what we did also. Ya, Of course, mixed doubles we thought we had a chance of probably getting a medal but unfortunately both the singles and the doubles, I had a tough draw so couldn't make that happen.
When the draws came out, everyone knew that it was a tough one, what was the mood in the camp?
It was more like, okay fine, this is what we've got, we can't change much. Of course, me being the 20th seed of the Olympic Games and still playing No 2...Normally for 20th, I should get 13, 14 or 15 seeds to play those rounds but, unfortunately I had to play Ma Long. So, yes it did feel a little bit like, yaar, aur (accha) aata to (if the draw had come out better...). Right now also that's what I feel if that particular day if I had anybody else in that corner there I would have just walked over them. Doesn't matter who else. Just because he's Ma Long, he could resist and put that pressure back.
As a team also, you try to motivate yourselves after the draw, just talk about it...
We don't need to motivate you. We just try to go in and say 'okay it's going to be difficult but theek hai, this is what we have.' I really don't have to motivate others. Because we accept this is how it is, we don't feel dejected, feeling bad that the draw has come out like this, what are we going to do. It doesn't happen like that.
Take us through the Ma Long match, game by game. What were your strategies...
It was going to be his first match... he had two rounds of a bye and I had one round of bye. I knew that it was his first match, I have to step it up and put the pressure initially. If I do that, then probably I can be successful and that's exactly what I did. In the first set also it was 5-5 and I made a couple of mistakes there, mistakes in the sense, those mistakes happen only because I am playing that kind of a name. Just because you feel like I have to finish it off here. At the beginning of the second set, I knew he is under pressure, even before the commentator was actually saying that he's seeing a lot of pressure on his face, I felt it. I knew it was happening. And then, that is also the reason I took an early timeout in the second set.
In the third set I made a few errors again, trying to finish too early that's because I know, okay if I go in too long, of course he is going to whack me up. I took some calculated risks but the thing was it didn't work out. Agar wo table pe padta to (If those balls had fallen on the table then) it would have been a different game. But unfortunately, those didn't come on table, and then I couldn't really put the pressure on. After that, I lost the set. He called the time out. He came back completely with a different rhythm. And then the match was completely over.
When did you feel that he was nervous?
At the beginning of the second set. He was taking so much time. He was not serving, I go to the table and he's still standing there, not serving. Then I felt okay, he's trying to break my rhythm.
: These Sharath Kamal winners against Ma Long will surely blow your mind #IND
— #Tokyo2020 for India (@Tokyo2020hi) July 27, 2021
What did you think at that time? It's quite rare that someone makes Ma Long nervous...
No. The thought was, okay good job, continue doing it. Because I can't congratulate myself there. I need to be in the moment. So I was like, continue on the good job, keep it going, keep the pressure, stay aggressive, go for your shots, that's what I was telling myself.
You were trying to play short to him...
I need to put him on defense. If I let him attack then there is no chance for me. So the only way for me is to bring him closer to the net and then try and attack or do something from there. Which was working out but then he immediately changed the style where either he put me short back or he didn't even let me play short. The kind of serves he did, made me open up the game.
In between games, you can be heard talking to coach Soumyadeep Roy about upper body movement, can you elaborate?
It was more about stay aggressive, don't fall back, be there for every shot. Don't think it's over. It was a regular chat nothing special.
Is that the best match you have played?
This is the best I have played until now. Because of the way I played, prepared, the way I executed those things.
However, kind of you might have prepared like this for other opponents also and you might have come close and won the match isn't it?
I can't rate any match by win or loss. That is basically the best result. This is the best performance I've ever done.
You have been a part of three Olympics in the past, how different was the experience this time with the pandemic, no fans, etc?
No crowd was still fine, because we've played a lot of tournaments where we played and there is no crowd at all. In TT we are not in that space where we have a full house. Of course in Japan, it's there but generally, we are used to it. It was fine, still, there were a lot of players and other people around watching those matches, some of them cheering for me. My friends from other countries cheering. So that way it was still fine. But with the pandemic situation, even before going, we had a lot of rules and protocols that we had to maintain. And I was a bit nervous, whether we will be able to focus on the sport or not because there were so many rules to just follow. But luckily things were a lot easier than how I thought they would be there. And it didn't bother us so much in our preparation at least. In the end, it was a very positive experience. We were very happy, the atmosphere was fantastic, the village was very nice, the stadium was very good. So at least I've had very fond memories of Tokyo. For me personally, these are the best Olympic games that I've played.
What was the best thing you watched in the Village after your campaign was over?
Both the men's singles semi-finals (Fan Zhendong (China) vs Lin Yun Ju (Taiwan) and Dimitrij Ovtcharov (Germany) vs Ma Long (China)). Those were the best TT matches I've ever seen. And apart from that PV Sindhu's quarter-final match (against Akane Yamaguchi).
Over the last three years, India did not have a permanent head coach, the players were also concerned earlier. How much of an impact did it have? Did it affect anyway?
To me, it didn't affect so much because I could work around with things. I do know that there were a lot of other players, whose personal coaches were not allowed, had a lot of issues. So all those things would not have come if we had a national coach. See for me, I am a seasoned player, I understand things, of course, a coach would you know make things easier but in my career, I have worked with coaches and without coaches. So it's fine.
With an eye on Paris 2024, how crucial is it to have a permanent coach going ahead?
It is very very important. It is necessary for the younger ones especially who are trying to make it big. As a team, myself and Sathiyan are doing well, Manika and Suthirtha are doing well. But what beyond that? So there we need to have a coach. And we are in talks with few coaches and I am pretty much sure that we will be able to find somebody by the end of August or September.
Are you specifically looking for a foreign coach?
Yes. We don't have a scope for Indian coach because nobody is being paid in India.
After the disappointment of Rio, Tokyo was one step forward for India. What does India need to do to get the medal in TT in the Olympics?
We are looking at men's team qualification, there we will stand a good chance. And apart from that, it takes time. We are doing well. For winning that medal, we need a clear structure, bench strength, we need a lot of other things also. We are getting there slowly. Hopefully by 2024 or I am pretty much sure by 2028 we will have that medal.
Going back to the start of the tournament, what went wrong in mixed doubles
The draw again. It was very difficult. Any other pair we would have had at least had our chances.
And then Sathiyan lost in his first match, in the second round, it came as a real shock isn't it?
A little bit yes, a Little bit no. Because it's his first Olympics man so it's not very easy for everybody to just go in there and get everything out. Of course the loss was a little bit hard but at the same time, the way he lost... it can happen, it's your first match, it's your first Olympic games, pressure is immense and you just have to go in give out your best. So it wasn't so much of a shock. And also he played well. Until a 3-1 lead which he had, the kind of level he played was fantastic but then the opponent changed his strategy and Sathiyan wasn't able to play at the slower speed and convert them.
Given that your match was just the next day, you had lost the mixed doubles and Sathiyan lost, what was the mood in the camp?
It was still fine because the girls (Manika and Suthirtha) did very well and they got up the confidence so it wasn't an issue. There was no problem of confidence anywhere, there was no pressure that people had lost. The girls did very well.
You also got off to a slow start against Tiago Apolonia, you had also not beaten him for 15 years. You lost the first set 2-11, how did you turn it around?
In the first game, I just missed everything. I had a very bad timing. So I didn't have to turnaround anything, I just had to start. So I didn't start the first game, just started a little bit later. There also it was the same thing. See that was exactly what I thought, okay fine I haven't beaten him in so many years, and probably this is going to be the best place to beat him. I had the same intent. If you look at that match also, I had the same intent, same body language, everything same as Ma Long match.
When you started your campaign, was it going through your mind you will be facing Ma Long going forward?
For me, it was more like I need to beat Tiago first. It's only after you finish the tournament then only you feel, only if the draw was better. Till then you want to try and beat whoever comes in. It wasn't disturbing me that much.
How did you prepare for Ma Long?
Typical. We try and watch some videos and go through some analysis. I asked a couple of other players who've played against him and checked out what are the recieves they give back to him what do they do after a particular shot. You just asked around a few players and coaches and then build your own strategy.
Where do you stand in your career right now?
In a very good spot. Because I am happy with the way I played and looking forward. So people are not asking me about my retirement now (laughs)... after the way I played. I just did my answering with my bat. I am happy with that.
Where does the Indian team as a whole stand in the TT arena?
We are a strong team and hopefully in the next Games we should qualify in both men's and women's team, that's going to be the target. And we will have to slowly continue to climb the rankings as a complete team.
What's next now for the Indian team?
Asian Championships in September and World Championships in November.
There had been a debate on who the GOAT of TT is whether it's Jan-Ove Waldner or Ma Long. Has this gold sealed it in Long's favour?
I think even otherwise he is one of the best. Even without this gold, the way he was dominating the TT arena, he is by far the best player.