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Thursday, December 02, 2021

Going to Oman in middle of coronavirus pandemic pays off for Sharath Kamal

Sharath Kamal won his first international title in a decade, but midway into the tournament, he wondered if he made a mistake by travelling to Oman amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
Updated: March 17, 2020 9:19:29 am
Sharath Kamal had bagged his last title at Egypt Open in 2010. (Source: sharathkamal1)

A big smile on the face, that’s how Achanta Sharath Kamal reacted to his first tour title in 10 years. In the final of the Oman Open, he came up against top seed Marcos Freitas of Portugal, a former world no. 7, but managed to pull off an upset 6-11, 11-8, 12-10, 11-9, 3-11, 17-15 (6-2) win at the Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex.

And with all that has been happening in the world and in sport these past few weeks due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and with his own fears of the risk he took in even travelling to Muscat, the 37-year-old’s reaction had a great degree of relief mixed in it.

“After winning, I was smiling so much. Not celebrating vehemently, just smiling a lot. I don’t know why, these reactions just happened,” Sharath says. “Sometimes I’m very aggressive in my reactions. Probably (during the match) I had things in control, then it went out, then again it was in control. I think all of that mattered a lot. It’s an important title. I’m quite happy, especially beating Marcos who has been doing very well in recent times.”

Sharath, who has been the flag-bearer for Indian table tennis for a very long time, had become the first from the country to win a tour title when he triumphed in Egypt in 2010. But on Sunday, in his match against Freitas, the pressure was palpable. So much so that it was getting difficult for the Chennai native to keep his emotions in control.

“At 3-1 ahead, my head was all over the place because it was a big chance of winning the title. It was really hard to control the emotions,” he says. “In the sixth game, I started with a 4-0 lead. Things were fine, then suddenly I went down 6-8. I saved five-game points but managed to convert my only match point. It was a mental roller-coaster ride, but I’m really happy I managed to pull it off.”

Over the past few days, sporting events all over the world have been affected due to the spread of the coronavirus. Table tennis too faces a break from the tour till the end of April, but there was a possibility that the Oman Open may get cancelled midway, which would have meant the risk Sharath took to travel to the Middle East would have been futile.

“My family is paranoid. They didn’t want me to go, but I thought that the Olympic qualifiers are coming up, so I need some match practice and this is a good chance to improve my ranking. But with all the tension and stress, it was probably better to stay home,” he had told The Indian Express on Friday.

Another tournament, in Poland, was taking place at the same time as the one in Oman but was cancelled during the qualification phase because of the pandemic. The same fate was feared for the event in Muscat.

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“There was a lot going in the head. We didn’t know if this would be completed. We still don’t know if this will count for points or not,” says the world no 38. “(It’s frustrating), but a lot of countries were not allowed to send a team. The maximum I could do was win the tournament since it had been a long time for me not winning an event.”

A week filled with anxiety ended on a high note for the veteran. Still, there are repercussions for making the trip. Upon his return home, Sharath passed all medical checks at the Chennai airport but now has to stay in self-quarantine, as part of the sports ministry’s advisory.

READ | Faster, Higher… Edgier: COVID-19 threatens all Olympic plans

He says it will be hard staying away from his children, despite being at home, especially since they are young and keep running to him. But he will have to stay away, from table tennis as well.

“The most I can do is go out for early morning runs, around maybe 5 AM, because there won’t be anyone around that I can come in contact with. Then, of course, I will try to take care that I don’t touch things to my mouth.”

The uncertainty still remains though, about when the next tournament will take place, and if the rankings points won in Oman will count (it can potentially take Sharath up to 33 in the ranking charts). But he can find satisfaction in knowing that he did his due diligence and won.

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