Sharath Kamal thought the Olympics in Tokyo would be his fourth and last but considering that he has never felt better and fitter in his career spanning almost two decades, the 39-year-old Indian table tennis great is reconsidering his future plans now. Speaking to PTI two days before his departure for the Tokyo Games, the world number 32 finds himself at the peak of his game. Earlier, the goal was to stop after the 2022 Asian and Commonwealth Games for the sake of his young family but he can’t rule himself out from the Paris Olympics in 2024. He says if Germany’s world number 10 Timo Boll can play in his 40s, he can too.
“According to my wife, this is my last Olympics (laughs), but let’s see how the body holds up till the CWG and Asian Games next year. I feel I am at the peak of my game physically as well as mentally," he said.
Sharath has missed only one Olympic Games (London 2012) since his debut at Athens in 2004.
Every time he has been a part of the sporting extravaganza, he has gained something.
“I remember Athens 2004, I didn’t know how to prepare at all. 2008 Beijing I slowly understood what was required at that level and 2016 I prepared really well but didn’t get the results unfortunately, also I was coming from an injury (hip).
“This time I feel I have gotten better as a player and my rankings reflect that. In 2016, my game was at a level where I could not play the round of 16 or the quarterfinals in the Olympics. But now on a good day, I can do that."
Sharath ended a decade long wait for an ITTF title, before the COVID-19-induced break in March last year, with a win at the Muscat Open. His previous title had come way back in 2010.
“I got to 30th in the world rankings in 2019 but in the last couple of years, I feel at the top of my game, beating so many top level players consistently. In 2010, I played well but I wasn’t this consistent.
“Game wise, body wise, I am in the right space. Now I have understood how the mind reacts, how to handle pressure and anxiety. Physically, I have really worked hard to be here," said Sharath, who is feeling good about his prospects in Tokyo after a 25-day national camp in Sonepat.
Reaching the round of 16 or quarterfinals in Tokyo is a definite possibility, said Sharath whose best chance of a dream Olympic medal remains in mixed doubles alongside Manika Batra.
The duo won the Asian qualifying event earlier this year but since then, the two have not got much time to practice together. They only spent three days in Sonepat before Manika returned to her training base in Pune.
Manika and Sharath need to win three games to win an Olympic medal but it will be a tall order for the Asian Games bronze medallists.
“We should get four-five days in Japan together and hopefully we would be fully ready. We have been studying our opponents all this while instead of going straight into the match and figuring it out.
“It is going to be very difficult (even in mixed doubles). Even the first round will be tough since we will be playing a top-8 team."
The table tennis contingent could not travel for training and competition ahead of the Olympics due to COVID-19 related restrictions. Sharath feels not playing in a similar environment will be their biggest challenge in Tokyo.
“If it wasn’t for COVID, we would have travelled to a place where we could simulate conditions similar to Tokyo, get used to the hall and the table."
The game has become faster and faster, feels Sharath, who has been forced to adapt to meet the requirements.
“The reflexes and hand eye coordination is most important. If that goes, you are done. The next generation is playing faster than the previous one and I come from a generation where you play the ball late.
“But I have made the required changes to keep up with the modern game. Even now (last three months) I had to adapt a few things into my game to boost my backhand which would help me finish better with the forehand," he concluded.