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Table Tennis

Playing with Sharath Kamal felt like playing with someone my age: CWG gold medallist Sreeja Akula

From playing some of the best matches of her career to pairing up with Sharath Kamal and winning gold in her debut CWG - Sreeja Akula has been on cloud nine. But she still wishes she could replay her singles bronze medal match.

sreeja akula sharath kamal commonwealth games medal table tennis
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Sreeja Akula had a fantastic outing at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022 (Source: Getty)

By

Sohinee Basu

Updated: 2022-08-19T15:56:05+05:30

Blood, sweat, tears and a large dose of self-will - perhaps that's the go-to ingredient pack Sreeja Akula whipped up for herself as she prepared for her first-ever multi-sporting extravaganza experience at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022. All of these ingredients were demanded of her en route to scripting history on her debut at the Games.

All of 24, Sreeja's petite frame doesn't reveal the power she carries, the energy that courses through her veins or the surprises that she can unfurl on her opponent. The reigning National Champion dazzled at the Commonwealth Games, going on to win gold with veteran paddler Sharath Kamal in Mixed Doubles and impressing greatly in both her singles and doubles outings, as well as the women's team event.

Although it has been just a little over 10 days since the Commonwealth Games concluded, the Telangana-based paddler is already back to the table and is playing a league in Gujarat when she caught up with The Bridge to reflect on the surreal experience the past month has brought.

Sharath Kamal and Sreeja Akula with the CWG Mixed Doubles gold

"I think winning the National Championships before the CWG gave me a huge confidence boost. After that, I just prepared well and went in with no such expectations - I wanted a medal badly, yes, but I didn't even want to put the pressure on myself...and look how it all turned out to be," Sreeja mentions, still overjoyed by her feats, made possible by the support bestowed on her by Lakshya Sports and Dream Sports Foundation.

"Looking back at the last few weeks, I can say that I have played some of the best matches of my career there," she says with a chuckle.

But it wasn't all easy as she makes it sound now - with the dust of the CWG slowly settling around her. In fact, the whole of the CWG span was a rollercoaster ride for Sreeja - who was taking part across the singles, doubles and mixed doubles events simultaneously after the team matches concluded for the women's team in the quarters itself.

"It was very, very hectic for us. I had matches all throughout the day, there was hardly any time to breathe! One match finishes, another begins - as I was taking part in all three categories and moreover, some of them were even stretching to deciders, it was crazy," Sreeja recalls.

"But thankfully, I had worked on my fitness before the CWG and even during it, my fitness trainer, Hirak Bagchi, really helped me keep focus. So even if I was getting drained of my energy, the excitement and rush of playing at the Games, the hunger of winning for the country, drove me ahead," she admits, grateful to her personal coach Somnath Ghosh, who was also present at the venue to help guide her, despite not having accreditation.

On pairing up with a legend

Sreeja Akula and Sharath Kamal (Source: Getty)

The cherry on top moment for Sreeja, usually used to playing singles or women's doubles, was when she had to pair up with a 40-year-old Sharath Kamal - a legend of Indian table tennis as he is, for the Mixed event for the Commonwealth Games.

Nobody knew what to expect from this duo as the only time they had played before this was during the 2019 Commonwealth Championships. But since then, both have grown so much. Throwing a complete googly with the pairing, Sharath and Sreeja combined extremely efficiently to create history - winning the lone Mixed Doubles gold for India at the CWG in table tennis.

"Playing with Sharath Bhaiyya was a great experience. We hardly got time to practise before the event - just 5-6 sessions in Bengaluru before Sharath Bhaiyya came down to Hyderabad at my academy to train with me for a day or so," she says.

"It was very sweet of such a senior player to travel down to my academy for the sake of the sport. I was the one supposed to go but after Sharath Bhaiyya's daughter contracted COVID, he flew down, really loved the gesture," Sreeja recalls.

"To be honest, I was very nervous and outright scared playing with such a senior player. But Sharath Bhaiyya told me that I shouldn't be so scared, rather I should just play my game, go all out and be fearless - rest he will take care of.

"On the one hand he is used to playing with a senior like Sathiyan but with me, he needed to come down to my level and explain and he did that so wonderfully. It felt like I was playing with someone my age," she confesses.

A missed bronze and lessons learnt

Sreeja Akula in action (Source: WTT)

As surreal as the whole Commonwealth Games experience has been, Sreeja Akula would desperately want to go back and change the fortunes of her semi-final singles match against Singapore's Tianwei Feng, a multiple-time Olympics and World Championships medallist.

"Up against Feng, I was aware of the difference between us but I decided to treat her as just any other opponent and play my game and I was so, so close to defeating her," Sreeja says, the exasperation of having missed out on the finals berth still haunting her, as she lost 3-4.

In the bronze clash against Yangzi Liu too, Sreeja, whose Academy in Hyderabad is sponsored by Raheja, Ctrl S and United Way, missed out on the bronze by a whisker.

"I've learnt a lot from this CWG. I need to bring in more variations in my backhand. Overall, I loved how I was mentally solid throughout even though the women's team quarterfinal loss against Malaysia was very upsetting for us, but we picked ourselves up just fine," she recalls.

With CWG now dusted off and a gold collected, Sreeja will now focus ahead at a couple of WTT events before making a better impression at the upcoming Table Tennis World Championships, where expectations will be heaped on this little-big star from Telangana.

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