The 36th PSPB Inter-Unit Table Tennis Tournament is going on at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai. Achanta Sharath Kamal is playing Soumyajit Ghosh in the team event. India’s No. 1 TT player taking on the No. 2. But all eight thousand seats in the stadium are empty. Apart from players, coaches, referees, scorers and a handful of well-wishers and reporters strewn around the seven floodlit TT tables, there’s no one.
The sounds are only little more than what you’d hear in a chess match. There are a few murmurs, a solitary clap, the referee announcing points, the whir of two pedestal fans kept for scorers and Sharath muttering “No no no” to himself as he walks away from the table after missing a point. He then returns to his spot, crouches his six foot figure, ready to take Soumyajit’s serve. Then he hears, once again, what he’s been hearing since he was three: the sound of a little plastic sphere struck by the racquet’s rubber and falling on a nine feet long table. This sound excites him, stimulates him and makes him focus like it has for the last 29 years. He wins the next point, setting it up with solid defence and finishing with a fierce forehand. The match, however, he concedes to Soumyajit, who’s 11 years younger.
Sharath has accomplished a lot, hailing from a country whose TT system is just fledging. He’s been to the Olympics, thrice; has won three Commonwealth Games gold medals and the Arjuna award. A hamstring injury in 2015 knocked him off from his best-ever rank of 32 and threatened his Olympic qualification; but he recovered on time for Rio. In February, he reached the Indian Open semis and has now risen to 54 in the rankings. At 34, he knows he hasn’t much time. But he still aims for glory at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and a top-30 rank. He talks to Sportstar about that and many things he encountered in his long career.
You started playing when you were five. What attracted you to the game?
I had no option. My father (Srinivasa Rao) and uncle (Muralidhara Rao) were my (first) coaches. They were already coaching (others). After kindergarten, they used to take me for coaching sessions. I liked the game.
When did you decide to make a career out of table tennis?
In tenth standard. I had to choose between table tennis and engineering. I’ve been quite fortunate. The family support was there. Financially, we were okay. It was the most important decision in my life. Until then, I liked playing, competing, but I never had any great performances. But since I decided that I want to play it (professionally) there was a difference (in the performances).
They (father and uncle) showed me the way. How to work and how to be disciplined. They were leading by example.
To what extent did your father and uncle influence you?
Totally. They showed me the way. How to work and how to be disciplined. They were leading by example. They’d already produced state-level and national-level players (when they started coaching me). So it was easy for me to follow my seniors. My father became the Indian team coach once I became professional. So, there were a lot of inputs. Met international players. (Learnt) how the national training camps go on. Once he took me to Bangalore for a training camp, let me stay there after getting permission from the authorities, and I watched my seniors train. All those little things helped.
You’re 34, you came back from a hamstring injury to qualify for the Olympics. Now, you’re rising in the rankings. How difficult was it?
I was 32 and I had to take care of my family. I was at my best level. I was ranked 32nd in the world. And then I had the injury. My aim was to break into the top-30. So, that was quite a big damage, especially, mentally. Then the operation happened. And for six weeks, I was on support. Four weeks, I was on a wheelchair and two weeks, I was on crutches. The struggle was very long. I had a six month lay-off. Three months to start walking and another three months for rehab. And, the Olympics was close. I had six months to get back in shape. Throughout this injury, there was a lot of ups and downs. In August, I was so down during the rehab that I took a week’s break and came home to Chennai.
The rehab was in Germany, right?
Everything was in Germany. The surgery, rehab. The club (Borussia Dusseldorf) took care of me. The social security was fantastic. The doctors were there, physios were there. Suddenly after one month, I broke down. I said I wanted to go home. I came home for a week.
You mean you broke down mentally?
Yeah, mentally. But after I came home, there was a lot of change in my attitude, in my strengths and weaknesses. Before we were working close to four weeks and there wasn’t a lot of improvement. And suddenly, it was better. There I think the family support was very important. When I started to play there were some matches going on in January, February. Then, I thought, maybe I can’t make it back to the top. I thought I’ll quit after the Olympics. But in June, I started working with Ramji Srinivasan of Quantum Leap Performance. That changed everything. I started losing a lot of kilos. Then I started playing, got better. It was my best preparation for any Olympics. I didn’t perform well. But it’s that preparation that’s helping me perform now. Those three-four months gave me a lot of confidence.
What exactly did you do with Ramji Srinivasan?
The main thing was he pushed me to the limit. My German physio was keeping me in the comfort zone. He was afraid that I would snap if I pushed too much. He was taking his time. But Ramji, he went by his instincts. He said push till your limit, if there’s a problem, we’ll stop. I regained a lot of muscle that I lost due to the injury.
We worked systematically. There was strength training, normal gymming, a lot of cardio with a lot of cross-fit kind of training – 30 seconds workout, 10 seconds break, 30 seconds workout – that helped a lot.
Now, when I am in India, I am working more on the physical part. Then I go to Germany, take two-three weeks to train for table tennis. So, I feel fresh. Earlier, I used to practice, used to do fitness, everything. I got tired during many sessions. Now I look forward to the sessions.
Table tennis is a sport that involves quick reflexes and sharp instincts, which are believed to slow down with age. But when do they begin to slow down?
That varies. It depends on how you train, how you’ve trained earlier, your body type… a lot of variables. So, you can’t say post 30, a player can’t play table tennis or they slow down after that. I felt I was moving the fastest when I was 32. I was using my muscles to the maximum. But the reason you get injured is because you play too much. All these learnings come with experience. If I tell a young guy, who’s playing well, “Man, you’re playing well, now take it easy,” he wouldn’t listen. When you’re playing well, you want to keep playing.
There’s a lot of skill involved in this game. Understanding the game takes a lot of time. With tennis or badminton, the player is probably good after three years of practice but with us, we need six-seven years. We need to understand the spin, the speed, the table. Every table is different, every ball is different. The margin of error is very small. That makes it very difficult.
At the same time, all over the world, players are playing their best post-26, 27… until 35. There are some players who can do well at 40 also. Not only in table tennis but other sports also. I think the age bar is going high because of improved physical fitness. If you’re fit, then you can play as long as you want. Then it’s all mental. It’s about how motivated you are, how hungry you are. If you don’t have that, then, that’s the time to quit.
I don’t see any other country’s players coming up so good. Looks like China will be up there for some more time. They have the tradition, they have the knowledge.
Have you gotten back to your best?
It’s been two years since the injury. In two years, table tennis has changed, players have been improving. So, I, too, need to improve. There are a couple of things I need to address at the moment, which will help me get back to my best. Back then, I wasn’t clear about my game; now I am. And, coming back from injury has given me a lot of confidence.
The Chinese domination has waned in badminton. But they continue to be the world beaters in TT. Do you see a change anytime soon?
Not in the near future. I don’t see any other country’s players coming up so good. Looks like China will be up there for some more time. They have the tradition, they have the knowledge. For instance, why are we good in cricket? We have so many people playing cricket, so, it’s easy to find the talent. With other sports, you just have a bunch of people playing them. That makes a big difference.
But do you think the pool of players in India has grown?
It has, it has. Until five years ago, we had only one player in the top-100. There were players who did well in the country but failed internationally. But that has changed now. There are three players in the top-100 [Sharath (54) and Soumyajit (85) among men and Manika Batra (93) among women, as of March 13, 2017]. And, two are very close to break into the top-100, which means the level of table tennis in India has improved. Until 2010, I used to win hands down in the national competitions. Now the younger players beat me. Of course, it will take more time to win an Olympic medal or an international tournament. But from here, with this bunch of players, with a good system, we can get to the top.
What has playing in Europe taught you? How has it improved your game?
Europe is a small continent. It’s very easy to travel. The amount of players there who can play at a decent level is quite high. So you always have very good practice partners and very good matches. We play matches every weekend. Throughout the week we practice, and play on weekends. So, we are constantly in the groove. If we have to do that in India, then we need that many players, but that’s now slowly growing. We now have six-seven players who are good. But from this we need to do build a lot of players, who can be better and perform internationally. And we also need to have a good infrastructure. It is very very essential because many times, table tennis is played in small class rooms, on cement floors and other small shabby places. From there when you go to a big stadium, you’ll feel inferior because you haven’t been there. First the facilities need to improve. The second thing we need to do is to pass on the knowledge to as many people as possible. Many times, the knowledge is concentrated in pockets. Only few people know how to play table tennis. So, if there’s decent amount of awareness, then that will help people come into the sport.
What has changed at the global level since you began playing?
The main thing is that people are much physically stronger. Technically if you see, the backhand has improved. Ten years ago, people used to play backhand just to put the ball back into the table. Like Pete Sampras did on a tennis court. Then (Roger) Federer came and was shooting backhand rockets. Now if you want to cover the table with only forehands, it’s really hard. The kids are quite fast and are putting you off-balance. The other thing is, internet has opened up the world. Only a few countries knew to play table tennis. Now everyone knows what it takes to be a good player, how do you train, what to do to get better.
Is this in India or…
All over the world. And, it’s happening in India as well. Back then, I didn’t know what was happening in Europe. Now they know what’s going on there. But they need to play in a certain level to get there.
In India, we are taught to just put the ball on the table. We are not good with technique. They (coaches) teach you in a result-oriented way.
Is it a requirement to go train abroad now?
I think yes. Just for the players you have there. But then, many young players want to go abroad without performing in India. First prove yourself here and then go abroad. You can get into clubs there but for that you need to have some base, a standard, some confidence. If you go there without that, even with the best coaches there, you won’t develop. You need to have a mould and then go there and refine it. You need to go to Europe if you want to improve. Asia’s little bit hard because they aren’t very open.
As in, is it hard to access these countries?
No. They don’t teach you. They aren’t very open. That’s why Europe’s a better option. Europe’s more relaxed as well.
What are the differences in the way the game is played in India and around the world?
In India, most of us are quite puny, thin. We lack power. Europeans, Chinese and other Asians, they rip the ball from a young age. In India, we are taught to just put the ball on the table. We are not good with technique. They teach you in a result-oriented way. The coaches tell you “don’t hit too hard; let the opponent make a mistake.” Most of the Indians are defensive. We are taught to survive. That’s our nature too. But that doesn’t build a player. So, I think we need to work on the technical aspects. After 20s, most players in India fade out because their technique is not good.
We have the skill. We need to be physically fit to match their game. At the junior level, there isn’t much difference. Indian players have beaten their global counterparts. But (in future) the same Indian players reach nowhere, while the players whom they beat become good.
Do you think the Indian Table Tennis League (ITTL) like ISL, PBL, will improve the game in India?
It will help the sport very much because of the foreign players coming in. Already, because of the international players participating in Indian open, the awareness of table tennis got better. Now if we can sit, eat and train with those guys, it makes a big difference. It gets a lot of knowledge into the country and to the system. We need to learn from them. We get an opportunity to learn from them. It will be a good opening for table tennis.
What do you think about India’s coach Massimo Constantini?
We’ve already worked with him during 2008-10. We know him. He’s quite motivated. The coach’s and the players’ mindsets have to match. It worked in 2008-10. It will work again.
You recently lost to Japanese prodigy Tomokazu Harimoto. How did you react to the defeat?
Many take him by his age. You can’t do that. People kept asking about my “surprising loss” to a 13-year-old. But if you look at the rankings he was 69 and I was 62 at the time of the match. I don’t think it was a surprising loss. He was a good player. Only thing that hurt me was that an Indian couldn’t make it to the final — that would have been great. Because the promotion for table tennis was fantastic at the Indian Open.
How do victories and defeats affect you?
You must treat victories and defeats the same. This is something my uncle has taught me. Because many times you win, you think everything is good. No. When you win, that’s when you must work more, because that’s when people are watching you. And when you lose, it means you have to work a little harder. So, no matter what, you need to keep working. I set a time… may be I can be sad or happy till tomorrow evening but I need to put this behind and look ahead.
Has the way you react to wins and losses changed over the years?
Some things don’t change. There are some superstitions, like I change my bandana during the match. It’s an instinct. Whether I am winning or losing, I feel like changing my bandana, or T-shirt or wrist band during the match. It’s a mental thing. If you start a tournament and are doing well in the tournament, you follow the same routine. If you are warming up in one corner, you will be warming up in that corner throughout, not elsewhere.
What was your goal when you started playing table tennis?
I had no goal. I just liked playing table tennis. Even when I turned pro… of course, I wanted to be national champion… but my coaches told me we have national champions, we need international champions. So that was embedded in me from a young age. I always saw the larger perspective. I wasn’t satisfied in 2004 when I won the Commonwealth table tennis championship in 2004. After that, I could have stayed back in India. I got a lot of offers from various countries and people were ready to sponsor me. But I went to Europe spending my own money. So, I always thought about bettering my game.
What keeps you motivated to play the game, especially when you are feeling low?
Top-30 is somewhere I have never been. When I was 100 in the world, my clubmate from Spain, Carneros Alfredo, used to tell me “With your talent you can be top-30” And I would be like “What is he talking about? I am just 100 now” If I reach 50, that was enough for me then. But he kept putting that idea into me. Then I thought “Yeah, it is possible.” Once I started with my personal coach Linus Menstren from Sweden, top 30 was the target. And he said, if I make it there, I must get him a coffee. The coffee is still pending.
How has your family supported you?
My mother, typically, wanted me to become an engineer and go to the US because all my cousins were there. So, when I chose table tennis as my career in tenth standard, I think she would’ve been sad. But she never told me anything. She was quite positive about whatever I did. She was there for me. Then it was my wife when I got married. It was hard for her. 2011 I hit my low; 2012 I missed the Olympics. From 39 I dropped to 90s in the world ranking. My wife could see I was quite hurt and I was trying really hard. So she moved back to India from Europe, just visiting me occasionally. Because if she and my daughter are there then I would have had to spend some of my energy on them. So she said “I will be comfortable in your mother’s house, don’t worry about me, I will take care of our daughter.” I don’t know if many women could compromise like that. Staying away from their husbands like that. We are married for about eight years now, but, cumulatively, we would have spent only three years together.
What lies ahead? You’d mentioned recently that you want to support youngsters who play the game. What exactly do you have in mind?
Of course, I want to stay with the game. I want to support youngsters. But I haven’t decided what exactly I want to do. At the moment I think I have a lot on my hands. I have my own career, my family. My wife and I are expecting our second child. I want to take things as they come. I don’t want to think about Tokyo 2020. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. Probably, at my age, injuries, breakdowns… there can be mental breakdowns. I have my goals till 2018 – the Commonwealth Games. Once I get there, I want to take it year by year. I will be with the sport after I quit but I don’t know how.
You can read an edited version of the copy here. Copyright © 2017 Sportstarlive