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The greater you are, the more humble you should be: Sharath Kamal

Indian table tennis superstar Sharath Kamal on the secret to his longevity and working hard

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Oct 7, 2023 09:15:00 AM IST
Updated: Oct 6, 2023 05:39:25 PM IST

India's Sharath Kamal Achanta during the Men's Singles Gold Medal Match at The NEC on day eleven of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Image: Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty ImagesIndia's Sharath Kamal Achanta during the Men's Singles Gold Medal Match at The NEC on day eleven of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Image: Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

At 39, when most athletes consider hanging up their boots, table tennis player Sharath Kamal won the national championships. A year later, he won four medals in the 2022 Commonwealth Games, including three golds. And he says he's not done yet. While he stopped short of medalling at the recent Asian Games in China's Hangzhou, Kamal has settled on the bird's eye: The 2024 Paris Olympics.

In this interview with Forbes India, he explains how his longevity has been nurtured by discipline and hard work since his youth and how he keeps himself motivated with short-term goals. Edited excerpts:

'When I chose sport, I decided to give it all'

I started playing table tennis (TT) at the age of four, and initially, I liked it because it enabled me to go to the club and hang out with kids. By the time I was 12/13, my passion for the game grew stronger, so much so that I used to wake my dad up at 6 in the morning and ask him to take me to the club. From there, the most important turning point in my career was during my 10th standard, when I had to decide whether to go for science and engineering—typical of a South Indian family—or take up sports and commerce. That's when my parents let me decide for myself, and I decided to go professional in sport. That decision changed how I looked at life—I became more serious about the sport and started working harder.

'Watching champions at work will inspire you'

I didn't have role models in my early years, and my parents and uncle guided me. But once I turned pro, that was when I was looking here and there to find sources of inspiration. And I was looking outside TT as well. In 1999-2000 in Punjab, I was fortunate enough to meet badminton player P Gopichand, who also went on to win the All-England. When he played, it appeared he was waltzing on the court even as the others were struggling. He was my first source of inspiration because I could see him before my eyes. I had heard a lot about Prakash Padukone, Leander Paes and Sachin Tendulkar, but I saw Gopichand, and he inspired me a lot. I looked at him and told myself this is what I should be doing if I played top-level sport.
The same happened with Roger Federer when I began playing at the national and international level. He won his first Wimbledon in 2003, and I was already a fan—my long hair and the bandana I wore was just because that's how he wore his hair back then. I happened to have lunch with him during the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. I didn't have many friends then, as I didn't know other sportspersons from India either, and one day, I went into the dining hall on my own. There, I suddenly saw a guy with a tennis bag and longish hair let loose. I felt like I'd seen this guy somewhere—we crossed paths, and he went to give his bag to the deposit area. Then, when I was having lunch, I realised this was the man himself, and then I ran around the whole place to find a spot to sit as close as I could without disturbing him.   

'The greater you are, the more humble you should be'

The most important thing I've learned from great athletes—Gopi, Tendulkar, Paes, Federer—is that the greater they are, the more humble they become. I still remember Tendulkar once addressing us, and he told us that 'you can be a champion today, but people will remember you for being the human being you are. Of course, your records will talk, but only your humility will give people fond memories'. Those words have left an impression on me—I want to be humble and approachable and should be able to give back.

Watch: There's no magic pill to success; the secret is doing the monotonous, boring stuff: Sunil Chhetri

'Learning to accept defeat strengthens you'

I had trouble accepting defeat when I was young. Until I was 14, I've even broken racquets after losing a match. There was also an incident when I was 10 or 11. I lost a match with a guy who was playing under-18. Of course, he would beat me, but I sat under the table and started crying, holding up the next match. But, as I was growing up, my uncle could see that my behaviour wasn't up to the mark, and I wasn't carrying myself well. He made it a rule that you celebrate when you win a point, but when you lose a point, you can't say a word. "I don't want to see any reaction on your face", he told me. You'll see that's exactly how Asian players play, and you are letting your feelings known to the opponent. As I started to follow that rule, I also began to control my emotions. Since the pandemic, I've also been working with a mental conditioning coach who is helping me to get into a condition to help my performance peak at the right time.

Also read: My losses have taught me the most: Lovlina Borgohain

'Hard work above talent and skill'

People talk about talent in terms of how well you hit the ball, your skill, your technique, and so on. While skill and technique-wise, I may not have been the best as a youngster—there were several better players than me—I've been very talented in terms of discipline and hard work. My dad made me sleep at ten at night, and that was that—I never contested. My mom gave up on TV, so I wasn't lured by it. When I was young, I never had a problem getting up early and going for a run. Because of such a disciplined lifestyle, I can still win the national games at 39 and a bunch of medals at the Commonwealth Games at 40. And that's what drives me even now—my ability to push myself beyond my physical limits is improving yearly.

Also read: A champion mindset can be developed over time: Rohan Bopanna

'Set short-term targets to motivate yourself'

Since 2016, I've been able to break down my goals and targets for just the next two years. So, from 2016, I was looking at the 2018 Commonwealth Games; from 2018, I was looking at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020; then onwards, I was looking at Birmingham in 2022; and now, I am looking at the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. When I'm able to make things shorter, I can find the right motivation. If I had a goal four years from now, it would be too far for me to stay motivated.