Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hot and happening

Sharath Kamal, the twice national champion, is one of the brightest talents in Indian table tennis

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When I was a youngster,” says national table tennis champion, A. Sharath Kamal, 24, “I would get up at 4 a.m., get on my cycle and go to a stadium. I would do a number of jogs and then I would set out for the training academy.”

Since his father was away coaching at a national table tennis camp, his mother began to worry. She had no idea where her son was going so early in the morning. Kamal never told her. She wondered whether her son was into drugs.

So she told her brother-in-law, A. Muralidhara Rao, 50, who was Kamal’s coach, to find out. “So, one morning, my uncle comes to me with a grim look on his face and says, ‘Kamal, where are you going every morning before you come to the centre?’

“I replied, ‘I go for a jog.’”

“‘Why did you not tell us?’ he said. I said, ‘I didn’t know I had to tell you or mum.’”

Kamal laughs when he recalls the incident and says, “It was then my family realised how keen I was to become a top class player.” Perspiration drips from his forehead as he talks inside the Rajiv Gandhi indoor stadium at Kochi. Because of the absence of air-conditioning, it is hot and sultry. He has just won his semi-final match against Sanil Shetty in the national ranking tournament. (Later, in the evening, he would win the final against Subhajit Saha).

There are hardly any spectators around, even though Kamal, the two-time national champion, is one of the hottest talents in Indian table tennis. He is the first Indian to win the men’s gold at the 2004 Commonwealth Table Tennis championships, as well as the individual gold medal at the Commonwealth Games at Melbourne in 2006. The 6’1” tall player beat crowd favourite, William Henzell, of Australia in the final.

It was a topsy-turvy match. Kamal won the first game, lost the next two, won the fourth and fifth games, then lost the sixth game, before he managed to squeak through, 11-8, in the decider. The striking thing about this win was how, unlike doubt-ridden Indian players of the past, he was able to hold his nerve and go in for the kill.

So what is the secret of his success? “If you can focus on the ball for two and a half hours, and completely shut out the crowd and your opponent, it is like meditating,” he says. “My mind becomes still, and I reach a state of pure concentration. That is how I have won tight matches.”

Incidentally, this powerful mental skill was taught to him by his uncle. His initiation into the game also happened because of his family. Kamal’s father, A. Srinavasa Rao and Muralidhara were state level table tennis players in Andhra Pradesh before they became coaches in Chennai. Today, they run the Achanta Kamala Gangadharam Table Tennis Development Centre, which is named after their mother. In the past, they have developed talents like Chetan Baboor, S. Raman and Arun Selvi, but their biggest find has been none other than Kamal.

In one of the most competitive sports in the world, Kamal is ranked No. 80 and his goal is to reach the top 50 within the next few months. This is possible because, as Ian Marshall, Editor of International Table Tennis Ferderation Publications, says, “Kamal is one of the most improved players in the world in the 21st century.”

In order to better his prospects, Kamal has moved to Spain, where he plays for a club, Sanse, in San Sebastian. “We play matches all over Spain,” he says. “This year, the club has qualified for the European Championship, where the top 16 clubs in Europe take part.” The club provides free accommodation, along with a salary of 1000 Euros a month. “I don’t save much because the monthly expenses are quite high,” he says.

In Kochi, in his match against Sanil Shetty, Kamal plays casually. Sometimes, instead of hitting the ball with the middle of the racket, it hits the edge and balloons upwards. Sometimes, a smash hits the net. Because of these unforced errors, Shetty, 18, is able to win a game before Kamal, eventually, wins the match. “It was not my best effort,” admits Kamal. “I was playing in second gear.”

Not everybody approves of this. Bona Thomas John, a member of the selection committee of the Railways, says, “Kamal is over-confident. Because he is sure of winning, whenever he plays in India, he takes it easy. Instead of beating an opponent in straight sets, he relaxes and plays to the gallery.”

Muralidhara defends his ward by saying that at the international level, the ball comes at speeds of over 100 km/hour. “Kamal was finding it difficult to get into his rhythm because Shetty was playing a game based on too much spin,” he says.

But impartial spectators would tend to agree with John. Nevertheless, Kamal, a B.Com graduate from Loyola College, Chennai, is a soft-spoken fellow with good manners. As former national champion, V. Chandrasekhar, says, “He is a simple and down to earth person, as well as a top class player.”

So what next for Kamal? Although the Arjuna Award winner of 2004 did not tell us his ultimate goal, his coach did. “Obviously, he wants to become the world champion,” says Muralidhara. “But there is a long way to go.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express)

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