In the ongoing Commonwealth Games 2022, Sharath Kamal has won the mixed doubles gold alongside Sreeja Akula and a silver in the men’s doubles with G Sathiyan. He is now geared up to compete in the men’s singles title.
Earlier this year, the legendary Indian paddler and Padma Shri awardee won his 10th title at the Senior National table tennis championship, improving his record over eight-time winner Kamlesh Mehta, which had stood since 1995. These 10 titles were earned over two decades, through reaching 15 finals.
Throughout his career, Sharath has been credited with bringing in a “paradigm shift” in Indian table tennis. There was a point when this might not have been a possibility, had he, at age 15, chosen engineering like almost everybody else.
But that he didn’t, he says, was “one of the most important decisions I made for myself. It was the most important turning point”.
A family legacy
In Andhra Pradesh’s Rajamahendravaram (Rajahmundry), two brothers, Srinivasa Rao and Muralidhara Rao, came across table tennis, a sport they quickly became passionate about.
Realising they couldn’t get adequate training there, and harbouring a dream of becoming famous TT players, they moved to Chennai. The two became state level players, and Srinivasa continued on to become a national level coach.
When he was coaching, Srinivasa would take his toddler along to observe the game. This little boy was Sharath, born on 12 July 1982, who keenly observed the sport from the sidelines.
“I had a dream for him. I wanted him to achieve all that we could not. I wanted him to win laurels for himself and the country. When we were playing, we were humiliated. We resolved that we would coach many youngsters, including our own children,” Srinivasa said in an interview with rediff.com.
“When we look back, we feel because we would take [Sharath] with us as a toddler, it might have helped him like the game. It has also helped him lose the fear of travelling and playing games. We knew then itself that he would take up the sport naturally,” added Muralidhara.
As a child, Sharath went on to win the under-10, under-12, under-14, and under-17 Tamil Nadu state championships. It was during this time that he made the important decision of choosing TT over engineering.
“I had a lot of passion for the sport. And the family was supportive as well, they let me take that decision. At that point in time, you couldn’t take up sports as a profession. There were better players than me who gave up the sport just because they had to go into studies, their parents won’t allow it…” he recalled in conversation with Firstpost.
While he did well at the state level, the National championship took longer to achieve. Although he has an aggressive playing style, he also liked to experiment, which cost him many losses.
“He lost many matches [in] experimenting, but we were not worried. Since we are coaches, we understood what he was doing, but many parents of players do not like their children losing matches. I have seen many parents getting wild with their children when they experiment and lose,” added his father.
A breathtaking journey
In 2002, at age 20, Sharath finally had his big break — he made it to the national championship that year. Although he lost, he was drafted into the national team, and his journey to the top happened at a breakneck pace.
The following year, he won his first national title.
At the 2004 Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships, he bagged his first international medal. That same year, he also qualified for the Athens Olympics and was awarded the Arjuna Award. During this time, he won five consecutive national titles. In 2006, he won a gold in the men’s singles during the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Four years later, Sharath became the first Indian to win an International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Pro Tour title by winning the Egypt Poen, after defeating Hong Kong’s Li Ching. In that year, he also won two Commonwealth gold medals, in the men’s singles and men’s doubles.
What followed was a long slump for the star player, not qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics and bagging no wins at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
In 2015, the sportsman suffered an injury that threatened to halt his rising career. “The right-hamstring that is connected to the hip-bone suffered a 20-centimetre tear. I was on a wheelchair for two months and on crutches for another two-three weeks. So from May to October, I was out of action before returning to play in the Bundesliga. This was a phase when I had serious doubts over regaining my full fitness, but God was kind,” he told Sportstar.
He persevered, and qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics. From here on out, Sharath would reach new heights.
In the 2018 Commonwealth Games, he won a gold, a silver, and two bronze medals. He also earned a bronze at the 2018 Asian Games.
The next year, he rose to his career-best at World No 30, also winning his ninth national title and beating Kamlesh Mehta’s eight-victory record.
Showing no signs of slowing down, Sharath won two bronze medals at the 2021 Asian Table Tennis Championships.
CWG 2022: Sharath Kamal-Sreeja Akula pair wins gold in mixed doubles TT by PTI, The Times of India, 8 August 2022
Sharath Kamal ACHANTA, Olympics.com
Sharath living family’s dreams by Shobha Warrier, rediff.com, 18 May 2006
The legend of Sharath Kamal by Rakesh Rao, Sportstar, 11 May 2022
Turning Point: Table tennis over engineering, the one decision that changed Sharath Kamal’s life by Jigar Mehta, Firstpost, 25 August 2020
Edited by Divya Sethu