by Olalekan Okusan, ITTF-Africa Press Officer
Most deservedly, the recent recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri award, India’s fourth highest civilian accolade, the father of two, Sharath Kamal Achanta was interviewed on Wednesday 30th January by the Times of India.
The Padma Shri has come after a stupendous 2018 for Indian table tennis. How much does the award mean to you and what is its significance for the sport?
Yes, the honour is for the sport, especially given 2018 being a watershed year. With medals at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, table tennis reached a new high. Last year, two of our players were honoured with the Arjuna Award and a coach with the Dhronacharya Award. We’ve begun 2019 with the Padma Shri. Table tennis is finally getting the attention it deserves. This is something I have waited for throughout my career.
How difficult was it to cope with the injury at the 2015 World Championship in China?
2014 didn’t go well, especially with the Commonwealth Games. Then the injury in 2015 was a huge setback. Following surgery, it took me three months to start walking again and another three for rehabilitation. It put my career and future on hold.
Did it teach you a lot about the significance of staying fit?
Yes, especially since most of our careers are short-lived. When the injury occurred, I didn’t know if I would ever come back. Thanks to the support staff at German club Borussia Düsseldorf, here I am. They took good care of me and didn’t rush me through the recovery process. It is important to allow the injury to heal fully because often players return prematurely and pick up another injury. One injury leads to another.
How difficult was it to keep yourself mentally fit?
An injury lay-off drains you. It is not easy because you are sitting at home, while everybody is training. You are losing out on competition time and fitness. It is quite depressing and what’s worse is you are unsure if you will ever get back. Even during rehab, until you are fully recovered, you don’t know where you stand.
What did you do to tide over the emotional trauma?
There was a lot going on in my idle mind and the only way I could stop it was to spend time with my family. It was worse because my rehabilitation was in Germany and I spent a lot of time alone. That led to a lot of anxiety and negative thinking. So, I returned to India for a week, spent time with the family and that helped me cope with the situation better. While I started playing and performing within a year after the injury, it was only in 2018 that I regained my pre-injury form. It took me three years of hard work to get here.
The thing I focused on after I picked up the injury was fitness. I could see that I was getting slower and the younger ones were faster with better reflexes. One thing that works very well for me is my understanding of the game and experience. I needed to increase my speed. So I began spending more time in the gym than hitting the table tennis hall.
What did you change in your fitness routine?
In 2016, I came back to Chennai (from Germany) and began working with Ramji Srinivasan. I had worked with him on and off for 10-15 years prior to that. He has been associated with table tennis from the 1990s and has trained a few of my seniors, so he knows how the game works and how fast one’s reflexes need to be. Until 2016, we had a long-distance relationship.
Now I work with him permanently and I can see that the team is pushing my limits but at the same time, I’m not getting injured. I’m happy with the way things have worked out for us. Ramji has designed my fitness programme. It is not just about cardio or strength training but also reaction and reflexes, which many trainers don’t really focus on. That training has helped me change tremendously, especially in the last two years.
Can you elaborate on the changes?
Earlier, I would move a little away from the table and play with a lot of power. But now, I play a little closer to the table and faster than my usual style. So, it gives the opponent lesser time to react and at the same time, I’m quite powerful. The moment I sense a chance, I go for the big shot.
What are your targets for 2019?
It is to keep the current ranking or improve to top 20. Qualification for the 2020 Olympics should not be very difficult, but the sooner I achieve that, the better so I can focus on preparing for the Games.
With a young family, how do you balance sport and personal life?
It is getting quite hard. My daughter is eight and son is a year-and-half old. My wife is struggling to juggle household chores and my schedules. So, planning is the key. I’m taking it two years at a time. In 2016, I planned for the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. Once that was done, I switched focus to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. So, I don’t want to look too far ahead. Also, when I break it into targets like that, it is easier to convince my wife and more importantly my daughter, who is not happy about me being away.
Your thoughts on the new generation of players?
The future is in safe hands; Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Manika Batra and Harmeet Desai are three players currently doing well. Manav Vikash Thakkar, Archana Girish Kamath and Manush Utpalbhai Shah are one generation after them. I feel it is a fantastic mix and I’m sure we will go places.
Has retirement crossed your mind?
I don’t know how long I will play. I haven’t set a date. As long as I can stay fit and I’m able to balance my career with my family life, I will keep on playing. I’m like wine now, I’m getting better. I don’t want to put an expiry date on my career.