"How the hell am I going to make a 38-year-old body last one more year?"
Sharath Kamal railed inwardly, when news of the Olympic Games postponement first broke last March. Only a few days ago then, he had won his first pro tour title in a decade and was limbering toward peak form. Suddenly, everything had come crashing down.
Cut to Tokyo 2020 (21). In a wretched draw, that had him face the great Ma Long in an early third-round match - Sharath had the Chinese legend on the ropes who was fighting top-spin, and finding his forehand winners thwarted early on. The Indian took a game off the world No. 3 in the 46-minute encounter, and walked away having lost the match, but as the country's most successful male player in what was his fourth Olympics.
Tokyo 2020: Key dates | Athletes | Medal tracker | Full schedule | Latest results
"I almost had him, you know," Sharath tells ESPN. "I went into the game conscious that my body language should not convey that he's the stronger player. He was nervous, I could tell, especially in the second and third games. In the first, at 5-5, I made a few mistakes that I wouldn't commit against any other player. But with Long I knew if I played a weak shot he'd whack me hard.
"In trying to keep up that pressure on him, I missed those shots. In the third game too I gave him two points on his serve at 8-8, something I should have never done. I slacked a bit at the start of the fourth, and he charged right in. I knew at that moment it was over."
Earlier, in his second-round match in Tokyo, Sharath beat a player - Tiago Polonia - he hadn't won against in 15 years.
"People ask me what I would want to change about my outing in Tokyo, whether it's my preparation or something else. I honestly did everything I could in training. To ensure that I'm lighter on my feet, I lost a couple of pounds, and fat in the stomach area. The idea was to be toned rather than drastic weight loss because that could impact my power adversely. The only change I would have wished for is a different draw. Had it been any other opponent apart from Long today, I think I would have made at least the quarterfinals at this Games. That's how good I was feeling about my mind, body and touch.
"I had good pace today, especially when I won the last two points in the second game, I was telling myself 'wow I feel like I'm 19 not 39'. I don't know how I pulled it off. I really need to look at the video. Last year I was thinking, 'how will I catch up with all these young guys'. Whatever show I've managed to put up in the singles this time is because of the work I did on my body."
But just how did Sharath, now 39, from the despondency of a year ago, run the defending Olympic champion ragged? Part of the answer lies in his anxious query to himself from a year ago. His body.
In his time off from competitions, travel and chasing peak forms last year, Sharath decided to pore into the most obvious casualty of advancing age: shedding speed and slower reflexes. In his typically explosive play, which hinges on power and pace, his game would lose bite without the speed. Together with his strength and conditioning coach Ramji Srinivasan, who formerly worked with the Indian cricket team, they got down to taking apart the nuts and bolts.
"We broke down my body mechanism to look at which muscles are working and which aren't as strong and why," explains Sharath. "I generally face a lot of back issues because of my height (he's 6'1') and my shoulders end up taking the bulk of the load because of my style of play. My explosiveness was suffering from age and the idea was to look into how I can get better and improve my speed."
One of the findings it uncovered was a lopsided weight distribution during his takeoff.
"We figured that the weight balance was not starting out on my great toe, which should ideally be the case," Sharath offers. "Instead the impact was falling on the rest of my fingers first so the start of the whole chain was too weak already and from there it's a domino effect slowing it down. We started working on the takeoff, so that the thread begins with the great toe and then gets the shoulder and trunk to work together with the feet."
"I had good pace today, especially when I won the last two points in the second game, I was telling myself 'wow I feel like I'm 19 not 39'. I don't know how I pulled it off"
To push his explosive power and step quickness, he worked with a resistance and assistance training machine - a 10kg pole-like device with connectable straps which delivers constant resistance during both eccentric and concentric movements at low and high velocities.
"It allows you to work on specific angles with a combination of plyometrics and footwork. We also used isometric loading which helps in even distribution of weight on both sides of his body," says Srinivasan. "Since Sharath is a forehand player his right side is stronger than the left. There is a certain obvious muscle imbalance. So we had to look at forehand to backhand weight distribution too since the body and hip position in both cases are completely different. We also used Dynavision (a light board which puts hand-eye coordination and peripheral vision to the test) to get his reflexes up to speed."
Now that the milestone is done, Sharath is looking forward to the mini goals - a holiday, home food and next year's Commonwealth and Asian Games.
"People have already started asking me about the next Olympics, I feel like telling them I've just got done with one yaar," he says. "After my match today, I was reading the comments about me online and I felt so overwhelmed. It was goosebumps and tears."