Turning Point: Table tennis over engineering, the one decision that changed Sharath Kamal’s life

Editor’s Note: In every athletes’ life comes a moment that flips his/her career around. A solitary slice of inspiration, a date with destiny, an important result, a wise word, the proverbial turning point may arrive in any shape or form and end up defining the said athlete. In Turning Point, Firstpost’s latest weekly series, we look at some such moments.

If there is one question in life that fills you with the utmost anxiety, it is ‘What next?’ It’s a proverbial question that pops up at various stages of life. And one of the crucial phases is as early as post the tenth standard in school, especially in India. A stage where you are taking the first and probably the most important step of your life. This is when you choose a career for yourself. The IQ levels are checked. Numerous pieces of advice are sought. Constant brain-storming is done. Science, commerce or arts? Which stream is the best? That’s a constant question that keeps oscillating in parents’ minds. Just like the thousand others, it was a crucial juncture for 15-year-old Sharath Kamal. While most students grappled with the question of science, commerce or arts, Sharath had to choose between science and sports.

If science was the answer then engineering was the career path. If sports was chosen then commerce plus table tennis was the route ahead.

Sharath chose table tennis and his life changed forever.

If not for table tennis, right now Sharath might have been dabbling between taxes, numbers, rules as a commissioner of income tax or filling files and supervising juniors in a 9-5 government job as a senior clerk or formulating codes or managing projects in the confines of an air-conditioned MNC office in India or in the US. However, right now at 38, Sharath is still sweating it out on the table tennis table trying to win medals for the country. He is still the flagbearer of Indian table tennis inspiring youngsters to take up the sport and he is still the No 1 Indian in the international circuit, ranked 31 in the world.

An athlete’s turning point in life generally arrives during his career. But for Sharath, choosing table tennis over engineering was the first and most crucial turning point of his life.

“I started playing this sport at the age of 4,” Sharath recalls. “But at that time I wasn’t very good at the national level. Even in U-12, U-14, U-17 categories, I never represented the country or had been in the top ranks in the country. So it was at the end of the 10th standard when I had to decide if I should take up science and go on to the engineering side or take up sports professionally. I decided I will become a professional table tennis player. That was one of the most important decisions I made for myself. It was the most important turning point.”

Like every parent, it was no doubt a tricky decision for Sharath’s parents as well. Their peers’ children were taking up engineering with some settling in the US after higher education. At a time when getting an engineering seat was a difficult proposition, Sharath would have found it relatively easier under sports quota. The default ‘what if he fails in TT?’ concern was there somewhere at the back of the mind but not of a relatively higher magnitude. It was a time when taking up sport wasn’t easy and those who took up table tennis left it mid-way due to combined pressures of engineering studies and sport.

However, being a table tennis player and a reputed coach himself, Sharath’s father Srinivasa Rao and uncle Muralidhar Rao, who coached him from childhood, knew Sharath better than anyone else. He was a sincere, hardworking and straightforward person, and their support along with Sharath’s passion and drive made the decision easier.

“I told him, you are sticking with TT, there is no guarantee, you may end up as a clerk also,” Srinivasa Rao recalls. “He said no problem, even if I end up as a clerk it is my decision only, your influence is not there. Then immediately I put him in commerce.”

“It wasn’t tough taking the decision, because I always liked TT,” Sharath explains. “I had a lot of passion for the sport. And the family was supportive as well, they let me take that decision. At that point in time, you couldn’t take up sports as a profession. There were better players than me who gave up the sport just because they had to go into studies, their parents won’t allow. So that way the support was there from my parents that I could go in and try to be a professional TT Player. And because I made the decision I stuck by it, I had the drive to push myself and excel.”

Rao had the confidence in his son’s abilities that, no matter what route Sharath took, he would surely climb up the ranks. Rao along with his wife and brother were ready to wait and be patient.

“I never had any objectionable feelings (about the decision). I accepted it immediately,” says Rao. “I was confident. If somebody was there, not a coach but as a general parent, they would have left TT definitely because who will wait up to 20 years where you are playing just for the state? Who will wait till then?”

While sport took precedence, education was still in the list of priorities. Sharath completed another five years of education attaining a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He also procured a job in railways and worked as a ticket collector in the second year of B. Com. At one point, he was juggling between all three – studies, job and table tennis.

“I was still studying because it’s better to have an education base also because firstly you have another option, if in case you don’t make it big in sport you need to have some something to fall back on. Secondly, education helps you to solve problems in your sport also. To have the logical thinking, it helps a lot.”

A strong support system comprising family, colleagues, friends, school and college made sure that balancing all the three things along with handling the pressure of expectations became relatively easier.

“Every time I had exams I could take a 15-day break and my friends would always help me out preparing for the papers,” Sharath recalls. My College, Loyola, was a sporting college, very famous for sports. And it was obvious I would go there. My School, Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan, was very very supportive, in the 12th standard, I had to go to an international tournament in Iran, my first one, it was during my pre boards, they still gave me permission to miss my pre boards and go for the tour but they made sure that after my tournament I went to school every day, spent two hours in library and study. And the teachers were there to help me out.”

The progress curve however remained stagnant. Sharath couldn’t break into the national scene for those five more years. At 20, amid the growing frustrations came a maiden call-up to the senior national camp in 2002. It was the second turning point of Sharath’s life.

“I was way outside my senior national ranking, I was probably 14 or 15,” recalls Sharath. “They called me in because it was a 16-member probable training camp for CWG 2002. That was my first break. Once I came into the training camp, everything changed. It gave me confidence, right exposure, so things fell into place. My game, my career everything was like a jigsaw puzzle and that was when things fell into place. And I gained the right kind of confidence I should gain and my game became more solid.”

So what was going wrong all these years? Well, Sharath was a flamboyant and fearless player but somewhere down the line, the consistency in his game.

“Looking back, I am understanding it now, my game was very flamboyant, it had a lot of risky shots, there was a lot of risk taking,” Sharath says. “There were a lot of shots which had to be hit that way only but I never compromised on shot selection. I went for those shots and I was not skillful enough to have consistency in getting those shots land on the table.

“The mindset that was talked to me was if a ball has to be hit this way it has to be hit this way. As young players, if you are trying to just play safe and put the ball on the table and make the opponent miss, probably a few Indians will miss but the international players will not miss. So every shot has to be hit in one particular way. It has to have the right aggression, if it doesn’t have the right aggression, you might win that day but in the long run you will not succeed. So if you want to improve in the right direction, it’s very important to have the right mindset.”

It was a matter of concern for Rao as well.

“It is not just me everyone used to tell, Sharath used to play strokes very stylishly,” Rao recalls. “He used to play unimaginable strokes. Where an ordinary stroke was necessary he used to play an extraordinary stroke. I used to be worried because most of the time he used to lose points, he lost matches also like that but using extraordinary strokes.

“My brother used to say you don’t worry this match he will win, he will play well,” Rao recalls. He used to play well up till 9-9, 10-10 but then would play an erratic one or two balls and lose points and games. That time I was worried, how long will he take? He used to practice like anything and was always thinking about table tennis.

Supposing a ball is presented to be hit, he used to do it in a different manner, sometimes he used to lose points also…why? You could have finished this point and get it done. Many people used to tell that this boy has got a very good future with the kind of strokes he was playing. ‘Playing strokes is not everything sir! He has to win matches’, we used to tell.”

However, Rao’s brother, and mentor were confident that it was only a matter of time that Sharath would consolidate those strokes.

It was a frustrating time for Sharath as well. Sometimes he used to even cry after matches.

“You remember watching the Dhoni movie, the scene where Sushant Singh Rajput is sitting at the Railway Station and he doesn’t know what to do?” Sharath asks. “That scene exactly happened with me, ditto, exactly. No change in anything, the dialogues everything that happened in that scene happened in my life. So I was like stunned when I saw that scene. Damn it’s so me, man! Because I was also a TC, with Southern Railways, trying to break into the national team, I didn’t know where my career is heading, I am working very very hard. So yes, the frustrations do creep in. In the 2002 National Championship I played in final right? In 2001, I lost in 2nd round, so that was how I was, not even able to play 2nd round of last 16, it was pretty frustrating. I had a lot of doubts but continued to work. Of course, you are not motivated every day but its how you overcome the hurdles at that point of time and go beyond that matters.”

It was that support system again that kept breathing life into Sharath. At the forefront of the helpline were his father and uncle.

“There were frustrations, he used to feel bad but he was a quiet fellow so he used to express it sometime but not regularly,” says Rao.

“Every day during the summers, we used to play beach football from 5.30 to 7.30, do beach running and then go swimming. There were physio sessions and we had a small-time dietician as well. He used to stick on to the program that was meticulously prepared by my brother. He used to do everything very sincerely. He was also focused and hardworking.

“As coaches we could see he’s got a lot of talent in his kitty but you have to bring it out. My brother used to have lots of talks with Sharath, he needed it more than anyone. And he, in turn, was very co-operative. He wasn’t reluctant or lazy, you say something and he will immediately respond to the thing.”

Teamwork with colleagues also played a vital role.

“There was a bunch of people at that point of time trying to make different levels, some wanted to make it to the state level, some national…We had our senior as NR Indu, back then she was trying to win her first national championships and she was so helpful, leading by example. She taught us discipline. So the whole group helped each other. Teamwork is very important and you can’t achieve something alone, there needs to be a team along with you, not just support staff but also a bunch of players for healthy competition.”

Sharath Kamal had a fantastic time at the CWG 2018 where he led the Indian team to gold in team championships. @ITTF/Twitter

That senior national camp in 2002 changed everything though and put those pieces of the jigsaw in place.

“That training camp helped me get those shots in (on the table), get the confidence and have consistency in my shots. Once my game had better consistency, I was almost unstoppable,” Sharath says.

“I didn’t work specifically to get that consistency. I just got the confidence, that camp gave me the right kind of confidence which improved my consistency. It was a transition.”

After that camp, Sharath’s graph sky-rocketed. He made it to the National Championships final, catapulted to No 4 in India and forced his way into the national team that same year. The next year he won his first national title, in 2003, rose to India No 1 and stayed there for around 7-8 years, winning five consecutive National titles en route.

The Chennai paddler was making waves in the international circuit as well. In 2004 he became the first Indian to win a gold in singles at the Commonwealth Championships in Kuala Lumpur and then qualified for the 2004 Olympics.

Sharath’s career started taking shape and he wanted to go one notch higher so he decided to go abroad to practice.

“Whatever the five years of work I had done was coming through and I continued to go ahead, didn’t stop. I wasn’t content with my progress and always looked for higher performance.

“Before I won the first National Championships, becoming the best in India, I had asked the Federation secretary for permission to go abroad to practice, he said to me the day you win the National Championships I will give you permission. The next day after winning I went and stood in front of him, sir ab dijiye sir, (Sir now please give the permission),” Sharath laughs.

He was making an impact in the European circuit as well and to start off something interesting happened.

“First I went to Sweden, my team BTK Enig, which was in the second division, didn’t want to go to the first league because they didn’t have money. But when I started playing with them we won all the matches and were No 1. So with 1/4th of the season remaining, they sent me home saying, ‘if you stay we will keep winning, we don’t want to win anymore,” Sharath laughs.

He then moved to Spain and Germany where he dived deep into the pool of table tennis knowledge and understanding of top level table tennis and the future roadmap as well. And amidst this, he became the first Indian to win a gold in table tennis at Commonwealth Games, in 2006 in Melbourne, when he won the singles title.

The achievements didn’t stop, he became first Indian to win a singles title on ITTF Pro Tour, was conferred with the Padma Shri award after being honoured with Arjuna award earlier, broke Kamlesh Mehta’s 25-year record of most national titles, by winning his ninth in 2019. And at 36, achieved his highest ever world ranking (30).

And he’s hungry for more.

But more importantly, all through this, he inspired a generation of paddlers: To take up the sport and be their guiding light.

Looking back, Sharath does feel a sense of satisfaction and pride at that decision of choosing table tennis over engineering.

“I feel very happy because at that time for many people and also in schools they were like sports might not be a good option, even when I won championships at the international level, they kept asking me what are you studying? And studies are very important. So looking back, coming from that era, I am really happy.

“Many times when I catch up with those friends who were in that period, the same group, most of us are thinking, okay where have we reached now…(And that time I feel proud of what I have achieved)

And nothing might give Sharath more joy than watching his father swell with happiness and pride.

“In TT what nobody has done before, he has done it. Including Padma Shri and many medals in his kitty. 9 national titles. It’s Because of him I got the Dronacharya award. I never expected that medal to come and get the award so instantly but it happened because of him and his achievements. Looking back, for a family like us, we feel blessed. More than him I am blessed (to have a son like him),” Rao signs off.

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