Achanta Sharath Kamal walked out of the medal ceremony, gold hanging around his neck, with the swagger of a proud father. He was the first one to come backstage. 'Look at what my boys and I have done' he said, without actually needing to say a word. He really does look the part of a father figure: A decade older (and almost half a foot taller) than anyone else on the Indian men's table tennis team that won their second straight gold in the team event at the Commonwealth Games.
This was his tenth Commonwealth Games medal.
He pauses when asked about that remarkable achievement. A look down and a rather dramatic look back up. "Five gold," he reminds us, with a small smile. Before a broader one breaks out, lighting up his face. "Half of it is gold. Not bad. Not bad."
🥇Men's Singles, CWG 2006
🥇Men's Team, CWG 2006
🥇Men's Doubles, CWG 2010
🥇Men's Team, CWG 2018
🥇Men's Team, CWG 2022
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) August 2, 2022
For years he has been the standard bearer of the sport in India. Five golds, two silvers, three bronzes across five CWGs. Indian sporting royalty.
What makes it extra special for him is the way they won this time around. They didn't lose a single match until the final. There, they dropped just one. They came into the tournament like favourites, and they won it like favourites.
"That's not always been the case," laughs Sharath. That one loss in the final was his. But it wasn't one that flustered him. "It happens," he says recollecting his first CWG final, back in 2006. "I was supposed to play their No 2, it was a given. And I lost. Up next was their No 1, who no one of us thought we could beat, Yang Zi. I beat him."
Been there, done that. Except never quite like this.
"I can count on my hands how many times I've lost two singles matches in the same tie," with that typical self-confidence which you'd call arrogant if you didn't know better. "So I was confident we would win if it came to the fifth. But it didn't."
Indian table tennis has always backed on Sharath to lift it out of whatever pit it finds itself over the decades. This time, he wasn't alone. In the crucial third match, the tie at 1-1, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran fought back from an early deficit to clinch it. In the fourth, Harmeet Desai blew his opponent away, the same one who beat Sharath. They had been 13 and 12 when Sharath was pulling off his 2006 heroics.
That's the thing, Sharath had always been the team's leader. The one everyone banked on. From the very first time he wore the India name on his back till now, he says, he's done that role. It's only since 2018 that the support act has become this strong. It's become so good he didn't even need to play the doubles matches this time, Sathiyan and Harmeet taking over, not losing once in Birmingham.
"Even when I faltered, they were like 'no problem, we can do it'," he says. There's a mix of relief and pride in that statement. He'd toughed it out for so many years, this team was his reward.
"Now there's Sathiyan and me. Look at where he went after 2018. We're two equally strong players. There's no ego between us, no question of who's stronger, who's weaker. And opponents find it so much harder," he says. "And look at how Harmeet performed, under extreme pressure. Wow!"
Besides, he'd already done his bit the previous day: monstering world No 15 Aruna Quadri of Nigeria in an epic 4-gamer. "I showed them how to [dig deep] yesterday," he laughs. "They went and did it today."
This is an exceptionally well-knit team. Sharath is clearly the senior and is given that rightful place but it's not one granted by fear. More like respect and adoration. "You've seen kids of this generation, haven't you?" he laughs when asked what he's taught his juniors. "They teach you... I've learnt a lot from these guys." They share professional advice, technical expertise, and spend a lot of time together off the court.
On court, in competition, they offer as much advice to each other, if not more, than the coach on the sidelines. Sharath, who'd gone to warm-up for a potential fifth match, raced back to be behind Harmeet toward the end of the fourth. Just as he was getting to game, match, and championship point, he removed his track jacket and shifted to the edge of his seat. Match point sealed, he leaped over the mini-barrier and lifted Harmeet clean off his feet. The others were just behind.
As they jumped together in joyous abandon, you could spy Sharath in there, head and shoulders above the gang. This time, though, that's just a literal description. No one is happier about that than Sharath.
They aren't done yet either. Ten medals could very well become eleven, twelve. The doubles and the singles are around the corner. "Now we go and celebrate for a few hours," he says before laughing, "then it's just back to the grind."
India's greatest ever table tennis player isn't done just yet.