Towards the end of the 20th century, the status of table tennis in India was below par, with the sport mainly confined to college common rooms.
Kamlesh Mehta and Chetan Baboor were once-in-a-generation players who ignited the racquet sport with their brilliance, but it was back to square one when curtains were drawn on their glorious careers.
Then came the phenomenon – Sharath Kamal.
Legends have always had one career-defining moment in their respective careers. For the Chennai-based paddler, the occasion couldn’t have been more special when he overcame local hero William Henzell in the title clash of the men’s singles event at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
It was the start of a legacy in Indian table tennis, and he showed the way for others, underlining the fact that Indians were no pushovers in the sport.
With the 2021 Tokyo Olympics knocking at the door, let us have a look at why Sharath is the most decorated Indian paddler at the Games:
Even though Chetan Baboor is a three-time Olympian, having featured in the 1992 Barcelona Games for the first time and making subsequent appearances in the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Games, he never managed to get past the group stages.
It should be mentioned that the singles event was crafted differently till 2000. It allowed the group toppers in a round-robin format to get direct entry to the last-16.
Sharath's journey at the Olympics
By the time Sharath Kamal qualified for the 2004 Athens Games, the organizers had adopted a knock-out format, where one slip-up could eliminate a player.
Up against Algeria’s Mohamed Boudjadja, the Indian stormed to victory with a 4-1 margin in the best of seven clash, with scores reading 11-4, 12-10, 11-6, 11-13, 11-7. However, he was blanked by Hong Kong’s Koi Lai Chak in straight sets in the second round.
With a Commonwealth Games gold medal under his belt, Beijing was supposed to rosier for the Indian paddler. Having been handed a "bye" in the preliminary round, his win over Spaniard Alfredo Carneros by a 4-2 margin raised hopes for future rounds.
However, it was a stiff challenge for him to overcome Chinese-born Austrian Weixing, with Sharath Kamal finally falling prey to his opponent.
Despite his dominant outings in domestic events and Commonwealth Games, he missed out on a berth at the 2012 London Olympics. But that could not dent his aspirations as he aged like fine wine, which eventually saw him qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Four Indian paddlers formed the strongest Indian Table Tennis contingent at the Games in South America, but none of them managed to get past the first hurdle.
The Road Ahead for Indian table tennis
India’s journey in Table Tennis at the Olympics has never been fruitful, but there has been one constant figure in the reckoning – Sharath Kamal.
His engagement in the German Bundesliga has made the Indian a known figure on the circuit.
However, what makes him special is the fact that he is still going strong and might enter the 2021 Tokyo Olympics as the highest ranked Indian player in table tennis at the age of 38.
We cannot ignore the fact that Indian Table Tennis has grown along with him, with next-gen paddlers like Manika Batra, Gnansekaran Sathiyan and Sutirtha Mukherjee all following in his footsteps.
Most importantly, the historic Bronze medal win at the 2018 Asian Games - Men’s Singles and Mixed Doubles event (along with Manika Batra) - was a landmark in the history of Indian Table Tennis.
Not so long ago, he attained his highest ever ITTF ranking of 30. Not only does it prove that there’s still a lot of fire in his belly, but qualifying in two events at the Games for the first time - Men’s Singles and Mixed Doubles - gives him more opportunity to sign-off from the Olympics in style.
Meanwhile, with 16 pairs competing in the Mixed Doubles table tennis event, the Indian duo of Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra are three wins away from a potential medal.
It’s 2021 and we are still banking on Sharath Kamal to bring back India’s first-ever table tennis medal at the Olympics, which itself justifies the impact of the legendary player in Indian Table Tennis. He is righteously India’s greatest table tennis player at the Games.