Sharath Kamal's 4th Olympics - A medal befitting the legend's final outing
In a career studded with medals and records, veteran paddler Sharath Kamal will be on the lookout for a maiden Olympic medal at the Tokyo Olympics to crown his legacy.
Of late, age has learnt to take the quiet backseat in heated sports discussions about the longevity of an athlete, especially in racquet sports. If you are quick to facepalm when you see the Big Three of tennis - Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic still going strong, then closer home a 48-year-old Leander Paes was aiming to play a record eighth Olympics.
At this juncture, cast a glance towards table tennis and also take a look at the pioneer - a 38-year-old Achanta Sharath Kamal who is heading to his fourth Olympic Games, hungry for a medal.
The arena of sports may have transformed over the years - several new and budding players may have come and claimed space but as if like old guards reluctant to let go, just as yet, the veteran players keep reminding us why they are still making headlines.
In India, table tennis was an underrated sport when Achanta Sharath Kamal started out - the years have rolled and table tennis has grown from being just another college common room or local club's evening sport to one of the much-awaited events on the global stage.
The past two decades have gifted us with seasoned paddlers like Poulomi Ghatak, Soumyadeep Roy, Manika Batra, Ankita Das, Mouma Das, Harmeet Desai, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Sutirtha Mukherjee who have all contributed towards extending the popularity of the sport.
Carrying the baton for the longest time and with most success however is the 38-year-old Achanta Sharath Kamal, who has aged like fine wine, as is the trusted warhorse for the Indian table tennis contingent headed to Tokyo Olympics.
With as many as 8 Commonwealth Games medals, 2 Asian Games medals and 9 Senior National Titles, the aura of Sharath Kamal is staggering in the Indian table tennis circuit. Bypassing Kamlesh Mehta's greatness, Sharath Kamal has conjured a legacy for the ages.
Having already been to 3 Olympics so far - Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and Rio in 2016, Kamal, just two years shy of turning 40 is going to lead the Indian contingent once again at the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo. Basking in the sunset days of his long career, Sharath Kamal is extremely eager for a maiden medal at the Olympics to aptly conclude, what might be his final appearance at the Olympic Games.
The legacy of Achanta Sharath Kamal - veteran par excellence
Once this Tamil Nadu star got started on the national and international circuit, there was little that could stop him from charting his road to glory. Making the difficult choice to opt for table tennis instead of becoming an engineer, Sharath Kamal's stars aligned to carve him as a legend of the sport in India soon.
Initially Sharath Kamal faced a few setbacks but in 2003, he lifted his first National Title - eight more was to follow over the years - the highest-ever won by any Indian paddler. In 2004, Kamal got selected for the Athens Olympics and embarked towards Greece to make his debut. Failing to progress beyond the second round where he was upset by Hong Kong's Koi Lai Chak, Sharath Kamal re-oriented himself for success again.
At the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, the talented paddler conjured an inspired performance against home favourite, William Henzell in the final to bag his first CWG gold. Other than this, Kamal also assisted India in winning the Men's Team event gold as well, defeating the strong nation of Singapore at the 2006 Melbourne CWG.
Using these wins as propellant, Sharath stormed into his second Olympics at 2008 Beijing after spending a few years to garner international exposure by playing in Sweden and Germany.
A more polished Kamal entered Beijing and looked hungry for a maiden Olympic medal in table tennis for India. Receiving a 'bye' in the first round, Kamal overcame the hurdle posed by Spain's Alfredo Carneros, 4-2, before his dreams were dashed by Austria's Weixing, who hails from a Chinese descent.
Sharath Kamal kept his fine run going however and in the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games, he picked a gold in men's doubles and a bronze in the men's team event. However, the former World No. 30 player failed to secure a berth at the 2012 London Olympics but that did not deter him at all - making sure that he bounces back every time.
Currently employed with the Indian Oil Corporation, Kamal surged greatly once again during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games - picking up a gold in men's team, silver in men's doubles, bronze in men's singles and mixed doubles event to announce his fantastic form. Keeping that very momentum going, Sharath Kamal won a historic bronze medal at the Asian Games in 2018 in the men's team and the mixed doubles event.
Tokyo Olympics will be a fitting goodbye for Achanta Sharath Kamal
It has been a long, illustrious and quite fruitful career for Sharath Kamal on the table tennis circuit. Entering the Tokyo Olympics as the highest ranked Indian paddler - World No. 32 at the age of 38 is pretty mind-boggling. Moreover, he will be participating in two categories - the men's singles as well as the mixed doubles.
In a sport chiefly dominated by the Chinese and the Koreans, India's lone hope of medalling lies in the mixed doubles event which is set to debut this year at the Olympics.
The major perk of the mixed doubles event is the fact that every N.O.C can send in only one pair to the Games and moreover, only three matches need to be won before the medal opportunity opens up - a job more feasible than aspiring for a medal in the more competitive singles and team events.
Table tennis in India will forever remain indebted to the legendary prowess of Sharath Kamal which continues to impress till the present day. At 38, it is expected that perhaps the Tokyo outing will be the last one for the Tamil Nadu paddler and the most fitting end to it will arrive if he manages to medal for India alongside partner, Manika Batra in the mixed doubles.
The 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist duo of Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra are India's best bet for a medal in table tennis and they have a unique style which helps them put up a strong front in matches.
While Manika Batra uses her long pimple rubber to slow down the match, Sharath Kamal, lanky and extremely fit, mixes up the pace and attacks - leaving most opponents a little flabbergasted. Only recently, Kamal-Batra defeated the World No. 5 pair from Korea at the Asian Olympic Qualifiers in Doha to book themselves a Tokyo berth.
With plenty of plumes in his cap, Achanta Sharath Kamal does not have much remaining to be proved. He has already cemented his greatness and it is a wonder how he manages to play with the passion he does at this age - and nurture the same hunger as he did when he started out as a teenage sensation.
Countless medals adorn his career and if the Olympic crown comes to him, Sharath Kamal's journey will reach its fairytale denouement and his swansong will waltz to the perfect melodious ending.