Indian table tennis ace Achanta Sharath Kamal tells Manu Shankar that the variety and exposure he's gained by playing in the European circuit has given him the confidence to compete with the world's top players.
Having won a Commonwealth Games gold four years ago, he became the flag-bearer of Indian table tennis. Now, with two straight title triumphs -- at the US Open and Egypt Open -- in as many weeks, Achanta Sharath Kamal has announced he is in good shape and ready to defend his crown when the country hosts the Commonwealth Games in October.
Last week, Sharath followed up on his fine run at the US Open in Michigan to shock top seed Li Ching of Hong Kong in the final and win the Egypt Open.
"This is the best ever win in my whole career, bigger than the Commonwealth Games gold medal win for me, personally. The Egypt Open was a world ranking tournament, with top players participating and I beat two of the top 50 players on the final day. Not many players have won a Pro tour in their career, and I'm fortunately one of the few players to win the title," he told rediff.com.
Seeded sixth, the Indian Olympian beat Ching 11-7, 11-9, 11-8, 11-4 in a surprisingly one-sided contest.
"I was so excited that I was almost smiling even before the last point was scored. I just could not control my joy. After the match was finished I was on cloud nine. The margin was too big," said Sharath, recounting those moments after tasting victory.
The triumph made him the first player from India to win a singles title on the ITTF Pro Tour.
Sharath feels that playing and training abroad has helped improve his game tremendously.
"Training in Europe has shaped up my game and my career to a very large scale. Playing the club league, the pro tours and the European circuit has given me a lot of variety and exposure by which I am able to compete with most of the top players in the world," said the world No 76.
The defending Commonwealth champion, who trained at German club Ochsenhausen, where he got lot of exposure, and also had a stint with a Spanish club San Sebastian, feels playing in Europe is not the only reason for his recent amazing run.
"There are a lot of reasons behind my success and it would be utterly unfair if I said it was all my hard work only behind it.
"The coaches have put in a lot of effort, and my co-players who train with me have helped better my skills. We are working as a team, trying to support each other during practice and matches.
"I would fail if I don't mention the support staff, which has been helping me; especially the video analyst through whom we get to read matches, analyze them and prepare better," said the 26-year-old.
Sharath, who is India's No 1 since the last four years, stamped his mark on the international stage when he won the Pyongyong Invitational tournament in North Korea, in August 2007 and became the first Indian to do so. His best performance on the world circuit though was two months before at the Japan Pro Tour, where he beat world No19, Lee Jung Woo of South Korea. The victory saw him attain a career-best ranking of No 73.
Currently ranked No 63, the Arjuna awardee feels that Egypt Open triumph is his best to date.
"I think this win (Egypt Open) was way bigger than the US Open. It just can't be compared with any other win.
"I feel great winning the Egypt Open, but, at the same time, the US Open triumph was not just any ordinary victory. That too was a quite prestigious tournament. It is another a jewel in my crown."
Sharath, who is of the view that his recent triumphs will open avenues for up-and-coming players, credits much of his success, and that of other Indian players, to Italian coach Massimo Constantini.
"There has been a lot of change in the face of Indian table tennis since Max -- that's how we call him -- has come into the picture. He is working a lot with all of us and we also cooperate in working towards a common goal, which is getting better and winning gold at the Commonwealth Games."
With a heavy training schedule ahead -- the Indian team has a camp in China followed by a tournament in August there, and then a tour of Europe in September -- Sharath is confident of another gold-winning performance at the showpiece event in October.