Sharath Kamal doesn’t even want to imagine what life would have been without table tennis.
“I never had an option,” is the paddler’s icy comeback. “I started playing when I was five, officially. But I probably started when I was two or three. My father and my uncle were my coaches and I never had any second thoughts. If I didn’t do well enough I would have had to think of something. But…”
He stops short of saying so himself, but Sharath has done well enough. Long the poster boy of Indian table tennis, the three-time Olympian won his seventh national championship last week. A dismal performance at the Rio Olympics and a career-threatening injury took the wind out of his sails somewhat, but by his own admission, “the last three months have been really good and he’s peaking at the right time,” ahead of the $120,000 India Open which kicks off on Tuesday.
More importantly, the 34-year-old is feeling stronger than ever. At an age when most professional athletes start to put together their post-retirement plans, Sharath has undergone a gruelling change in training regime.
“The Olympics was sort of the turning point. Before that, I played table tennis six hours a day and would get tired and couldn’t go full-on with my physical training. Three months from Rio, I switched to working out 2-3 hours per day and practicing 3 hours a day,” says the world No. 62, who trains with former Indian cricket team trainer Ramji Srinivasan. “In a week, there are 3-4 sessions of strength training. Two sessions of cardio, which include rowing and running. Two sessions of hybrid training and I also play squash.”
Then there’s the hard part – diet. While as a 24-year-old he could eat anything, “now even if you drink water you get fat,” jests Sharath. “I need to listen to my body and not practice too much. I need to catch up with the young guys physically. Their reflexes are faster. But they need to catch up with me on the skill part.”
And it’s not just skill but the style of play too. While he Sharath agrees with coach Massimo Constantini’s assessment that Indians need to adopt the aggressive game of Chinese instead of trying to emulate the defensive Europeans.
“If you look at the body structure, I am the only guy who is tall and strong and thus the European style suits me. But the others are smaller and they cannot play that way. We need to learn a lot from Chinese because of the similar build. But to play like them we also need to be very, very fast,” says Sharath, adding, “Indians and physicality are not synonyms.”
As of now, Sharath is busy trying to find the balance, not just on the court but off it too. Hopscotch sessions with the six-year-old daughter are rare. After all, being a professional athlete is “almost like being in the army.” Although things have gotten slightly better since Rio.
“After the London Olympics, my wife took the call that I should play and train in Europe alone. She said these four years, go ahead and do what you want but after that you come back home,” says Sharath, who pauses, then adds, “Honestly, I shouldn’t even be playing as much as I am.”
He did go back home to celebrate the nationals win. But sponsors, relatives and get-togethers took a sizeable chunk out of the three days. “These external things take a lot of energy out of you. So, I try to make the most of the time I spend with my family.”
Surely then, he must have entertained thoughts of hanging up the boots?
“No,” he fires back again. “I haven’t thought about life after retirement. I don’t know if I’m going to be a coach or a manager for some player. I will definitely be hanging around this sport.”
Sharath doesn’t want to imagine what life would be without table tennis.