Furious Player of the Fast Game

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NAME Sharath Kamal AGE 27
SPORT TABLE TENNIS

By Samrat Chakrabarti

ACHANATA SHARATH Kamal’s universe measures nine feet by five. It’s flat, made of masonite (a type of hardboard) and the object of his affection is a 40 millimeter ball whose trajectory across a six inch high net is for him the stuff of life, dread and dream. Six foot one in his socks, Sharath has spent the last 21 of his 27 years negotiating a price with that ball — a price to bend its trajectory to his will, to fashion a communion between mind, body and a 6-inch-wide bat he holds in his hand..

Chennai-based Sharath has been the reigning national table tennis champion for four years. When the Commonwealth Games begin in October this year, he will be defending the gold medal he denied the crowd favourite, Australian William Henzell, in the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

There are three people who play when Sharath takes to the table. Behind every smash, flick, slice,chop and block, are two wise men, invisible except to those who know Sharath’s story. They are known as the Rao brothers — the Chennai duo who have fashioned some of the best table tennis talent in the country. For Srinivasa Rao and Muralidhara Rao, one in the Income Tax Department and the other in Central Excise, juggling jobs, family, thin finances and a lifelong passion for table tennis, Sharath, a son to one and a nephew to the other, has been their masterpiece — a life’s work come good.

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CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

2010 GOLD
Egypt Open Singles

2010 GOLD US
Open Singles (first Indian)

2007 SILVER
Indian Open Pro Tour Singles

2007 GOLD
Pyongyang Open Singles

2006 GOLD 
Commonwealth Games Singles and Team

2004 GOLD 
Commonwealth Championship Singles and Team

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Sitting in a Delhi hotel, two days after his US Open single’s win and hours before he leaves for the Egypt Open, Sharath doesn’t look like a headline grabber. His easy, personable manner, the quick smile and the lack of self-importance, which often comes with success, Sharath could be mistaken for a college freshman. But talk to him about the game and a self-assured conviction emerges. There is nothing jaded about the way he analyses Federer’s decline to illustrate the importance of confidence and there is something quite refreshing when he describes the men’s team win in the 2004 Commonwealth Games.

The family home had two bedrooms and he shared the diwan in the outside room with his younger brother well into his late teens. He had to leave college and take up a job with the Indian Railways to supplement the family income. Luxury, comfort and choice afforded by money were not part of life’s package but what he did have is one of the more successful partnerships in Indian sport.

The Raos have a curious relationship. Their daily routine hasn’t changed for 28 years. Begin at 5 am, get to the academy by 6, train kids, discuss the business of training over filter coffee and then head to the office. Back to the academy at 4.30 pm, train and then home again by 9. Muralidhara is in charge of technical coaching while Srinivasa keeps the academy going. Every important decision regarding a player — which tournaments to play, what to focus on , game plan and technical direction, is made together over, presumably, more filter coffee.

The true magic of table tennis is hardest for the spectator to see. In between ping and pong is a crafty, cunning world of spin and counter spin. The ball’s spin defines its trajectory, its bounce off the table and what it does when it meets the opponent’s bat. To keep the spinng ball in play and to turn it to one’s advantage requires deft manoeuvering of the bat — the angle, the force, the counter movement to give it an opposing whirl — it’s synaptically heavy stuff, requiring tremendous reflex, agility, power, speed and dancing feet. Table tennis is the second fastest game on the planet in terms of reflexes.

Sharath loved to play with the parameters — tweaking and changing and poking his game to discover a new weapon, a new defence. This made for frustrating performances, because important games that would affect his rankings could become an experiment and were often lost. This inclination, despite his father’s frustration in seeing his son lose, was encouraged by the Raos because they believed it would pay dividends in the long run. It took three years (1998-2000) for Sharath to get his big break and those were the longest three years of his life. Engineered into Sharath’s game was also a tactical and technical flexibility. Sharath can play the game both standing close to the table, like the Chinese, and at a distance which is the hallmark of the Europeans, the two power centres. Close to the table requires lightning reflexes to counter high speed smashes while the distance game requires power and strength and uses Sharath’s height. This flexibility is paying off, as evidenced by the list of Chinese and Europeans Sharath has countered to earn international medals.

But this is only half the story. Sharath hasn’t had a normal school life, nor has he known the joys of whiling away time in a college canteen. It was just training and matches and work.

‘I was crying and my dad said, from tomorrow we’ll do it together. I’ll be with you every moment of your training’

THE LOWEST point of his three years of struggle came after a loss against an old rival, despite having four match points. Sharath, who is described by friends as imperturbable, came home shellshocked. “I remember clearly,” says the champ, “I was crying and dad came up and said, ‘From tomorrow we’ll do it together. I’ll be with you every moment of training and together we’ll find a way.” This support system helped him recover his game in those years — and he has never looked back.

What sacrifices did it take? The son cites the father’s and the father cites the son’s. From both Sharath and the Rao brothers, one absorbs an adherence to an uncompromising inner standard. Sharath’s greatest achievement? Muralidhara mentions a match where he made the world’s Number 1 sweat, but lost. His father mentions when they decided against sending him to Iran to play the club circuit despite high salaries, since the competition wasn’t good enough. These are three technicians and in their universe a man’s measure is in the real and the essential, on the table, nine feet by five.

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DID YOU KNOW?

> The extreme speeds in TT is one reason it hasn’t caught on as a TV sport. To slow the game down, the diametre of the ball has been increased from 38mm to 40mm to make rallies easier to follow

> The newest shot in TT is called kill-spin, where the ball arcs over and bounces low several times making it impossible to return

> When a ‘World’s Fastest Smash Competition’ was held, Lark Brandt, a little known New Zealander had a record smash speed of 112.5 kmph

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