Now we can beat anyone barring China: Sharath Kamal
Jakarta, Aug 29 (PTI) Warhorse Sharath Kamal says he can peacefully retire after winning India's first table tennis medal at the Asian Games but he won't.
He won't because there is a strong belief within the men's team now that a World Championship medal is very much a possibility.
After all, the team comprising Kamal, G Sathiyan and Harmeet Desai beat Japan to end a 60-year-wait for an Asiad medal.
"On our day, we can beat anyone except China," Kamal told PTI as the mixed doubles competition commenced here today.
It is quite a statement considering Indian players were not taken seriously at the world level as recent as five years ago.
And it may seem the medal has come out of nowhere but that it is not the case. More government funding for the junior programme, a table tennis league and most players plying their trade in Europe for the last five to six years has led to this "unthinkable feat".
At the start of the year, India had as many as six top-100 players in the ITTF rankings.
"It is a bronze but it feels like a gold. In 2006, I won my first Commonwealth Games gold. I had just come on to the scene. But a medal at the Asian Games feels unreal. My wife, who usually doesn't have much interest in the game says 'You can stop now and spend time with your kids,'" said the 36-year-old, who is still going strong after competing on the big stage for close to 15 years.
He is world No 33 and could soon break into the top-30 alongside 39th ranked G Sathiyan, who was the star in the memorable win against Japan, winning his both his matches against 19th ranked Kento Matsudaira and 28th ranked Jin Ueda.
Japan did not bring its best players to the Games but it was still a formidable outfit.
The team lost 0-3 to South Korea in the semifinals but the scoreline doesn't suggest the fight Indians put up.
"Except the Chinese, everyone fears the Indians on the ITTF tour. Because if they beat them in individual competitions, they can beat them anywhere. Even the Chinese don't take them lightly anymore," said India's Italian coach Massimo Costantini.
Another reason why Indians have risen rapidly is the number of tournament they play in a year.
"On an average, we play about 12-14 ITTF events in a year. Six years ago, I used to play just five or six. Ahead of the Asian Games, 23 Indians took part in the Korea Open. A German player who is a friend said 'you have got so many players in one tournament, that should be equal to our annual budget'," said Kamal.
With Manika Batra being the most prominent female face, the racket sport is on the right track in the country.
Entries at national events have increased significantly, suggesting an increase in the popularity of the game. Kamal, however, feels still a lot more needs to be done for the promotion of the game.
"It is such an accessible sport and in India, having TT tables at home is a norm. But that mass interest in the game still has not taken to the level where badminton is. I think we just have to keep performing and hope that happens someday," added Kamal, who think playing team event at the Olympics is very much on the cards.
"If three of us can be in top-50 in the run-up to the Olympics, then we have a great chance of making the Olympics," he added.