New Delhi: India`s top table tennis player Sharath Kamal`s form was in free fall last year. To make matters worse, he had to shift to a new club in Germany and change his style of play when he was under enormous pressure to make the cut for the 2012 London Olympics on the strength of his ranking.
Sharath, who missed qualifying directly by a mere five spots, is now confident of making his third straight Olympics through qualifiers.
"From March to October last was like a nightmare for me as I lost to players I would never lose to normally. I am slowly regaining my form and I just need to build on my confidence," Sharath said.
He had a tough time on the tour last year after a great 2010 when he won his first ITTF Pro Tour title in Egypt and a doubles gold at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, making him reach a career-high ranking of 39 in singles.
Then the slump began. Loss of form and some "shock defeats" sent him plummeting to 91 in the rankings and the fall was rounded off with his recent loss to Anthony Amalraj in the National Championships last month, denying him a sixth consecutive singles title. He is now working his way back again and quickly avenged his defeat by beating Amalraj in the Petroleum championships last week.
"The Petroleum win last week has given me the much-needed boost ahead of the Asian Championships, World Championships and the Olympic qualification," Sharath said.
Elaborating the reasons for the slump, Sharath says he was forced to move to a lesser-known club in Germany after his earlier club got bankrupt. As for the change of style, he says he has realised that he needed to change his strategy to take on the formidable Chinese and Europeans.
"Those six months were terrible. When I was ranked 40 I could have qualified directly, but I missed the bus by five spots. The last guy to qualify was 48 and I was 53 at that time. That shook me. Plus the lack of proper guidance, as I was too alone in Germany. I did not even have a coach and I was clueless," recalled Sharath, who now plays in south of Germany in Bremen.
On his earlier club, Sharath said: "The practice was really good there as you regularly practised with the top-50 players. In the current club, only one guy is in the top-20. So the quality of practice has gone down."
The lanky paddler from Chennai, however, has now put the bad times behind him. He is focussed on giving his best in the Asian Championships at Macau later in the month and the World Team event at Dortmund towards the end of March, besides preparing for the crucial Olympic qualification tournament at Hong Kong in April.
Though Sharath has been India`s best player for almost a decade now, he is aware that he is still "quite fresh" on the international scene. He says he could have easily retired after a singles career highlighted by victories in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and 2004 Commonwealth Championships, if he did not have the desire to do well at the world level.
"I intend to play until the 2016 Rio Olympics," says the 29-year-old while explaining how tough it is to change his game.
"I am not leaving the table so much as I used to before. I feel I am going through a transition period after playing from the back for 15 years. I am not able to get the line of play from the front. I need some close matches at this point. It is not easy to adapt to a new style because of the age, but I can still change as I am still evolving at the international stage. All I need is to improve my physical and mental fitness to go with the changes in my game."
He feels things are "hotting" up even in India and more than one player in men`s and women`s categories can secure the Olympic berth and sees Amalraj making it.
"Amal has a good chance. And with the young ones, you never know. Ghosh (Soumyajit) and Sanil (Shetty) are the young players to watch out for. All of a sudden there are a good many youngsters. These are exciting times for Indian table tennis."
He is currently based in Patiala with the rest of the team and working with new coach Leszek Kucharski for the first time.