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Vol. XXXIV No. 1, April 16-30, 2024

Indian TT sets sights on conquering the Olympics

-- by V. Venkataramana

‘Flag Bearer’ seems to be an apt moniker for Sharath Kamal, the Indian table tennis icon who hails from Chennai. It doesn’t come as a surprise that he has been picked to be the flag bearer of the Indian contingent at the upcoming Olympic Games to be held in Paris, France. He has been at the forefront of this much-loved sport along with Sathiyan Gnanasekaran – also a TN talent – and has overtakenhis own TT idols, Kamlesh Mehta from Delhi and the late Venugopal Chandrashekhar from Chennai. With his leap into the top 40 in world rankings, Sharath is basking in the international limelight. He qualifies to represent the country for a fourth time in the singles event at the forthcoming Paris Olympics. Sharath, who led the Indian team’s Men’s challenge at the recently concluded World Table Tennis Championships, is elated that for the first time, both the Men’s and Women’s national Table Tennis teams have qualified for the team competitions at the Paris Olympic Games. In an interview with Madras Musings, Sharath shares his thoughts about his career and the Indian TT landscape.

Sharath was introduced to the sport when his father Srinivasa Rao and uncle Muralidhara Rao – famous in Indian TT as the Rao brothers – took him along to their TT Academy. By the time he was eight, he had taken a shine to the sport and began playing in State-level tournaments and Under-10 group competitions. He even achieved the third rank at the time. “I grew up watching Kamlesh and Chandra, and learned a lot from them. Especially Chandra, because he stayed with the sport even after his playing days. He was the coach during my first participation at the Olympic Games. At that time, he was pretty much a key part of my growth in the sport at an international level. From him, and other doyens of his generation such as Kamlesh, I learned to cultivate discipline, determination and commitment. I motivated myself to emulate Chandra’s feat when he broke into the top 100 in world rankings. I set that target for myself because people were talking highly of him at that time,” says Sharath. Presently TN’s no. 1 player and State champion, his career began to flourish when he turned 20. “I was called for a camp with the Indian team. That training camp gave me the right exposure. My growth as a player was very fast from 2003, when I rose to become the national champion in the Singles category. In 2004, I became the first Indian player to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and also qualified to compete in the Olympic Games, representing India in TT,” smiles Sharath. He went on to unleash his prowess at the sport, proving his mettle time and again for the next two years in international TT. He bagged 13 Commonwealth Games medals, 7 of which were gold; two Asian Games medals; and participated in three more Oympic Games. The upcoming Paris Games will mark my fifth Olympic appearance, he said.

Sharath was coached throughout his career by his father Srinivasa Rao and uncle Muralidhara Rao. The latter recalls 2016 as the start of a sudden rapid improvement in the standard of the sport as well as a burst in popularity among TT aficionados – it was the year when four Indian players, including two in the Women’s category, had qualified for the Olympic Games held that year at Rio de Janerio, Brazil. “That had never happened before,” says Muralidhara Rao, adding. “I would say that 2008 was a watershed year when we won 8 medals at the Commonwealth Games. The reason for such progress can be attributed to the National Federation and the Central and State governments, for they provided players with the right support to establish a definite structure for the further development of talented paddlers. The growth was enhanced by the advent of the Ultimate Table Tennis League, which enabled our players to get the right platform to play alongside the top players on the world stage. Now, many youngsters are doing well across age groups, including boys and girls in the Under 15 and Under 13 categories.”

Sharath is cautiously optimistic about the chances of winning a medal at the Paris Olympics, and agrees that it would be great if this dream of Indian TT fans and members of the National and State Federations were to come true.”The next four months are going to be engaged completely in preparing for the Paris Olympics. The Federation has planned some preparatory camps. We will also be spending a lot of time training in Europe, especially Germany and France, and some time in China and South Korea too. We will also be playing five or six international tournaments. The Paris Games are special for Indian TT as this is the first time both our Men’s and Women’s squads have qualified for the team championships in the Olympics. This is certainly something very big,” he finishes.

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