Kolkata: Still basking in the afterglow of Commonwealth Games glory, India's top paddler Achanta Sharath Kamal feels the country's upswing in table tennis will keep its more fancied rivals on their toes at the Asian Games although the team will set foot in Indonesia as underdogs.
"This is our best chance to win a team medal at the Asian Games. It's very difficult individually, but when I say good performance at the Asian Games, it's winning a medal," Sharath told IANS in an interview.
"We've never won an Asian Games medal, but we have always made it to the quarterfinals in the team championships. So we are just one match away from a medal. It depends on the draw. Hopefully, we don't meet China. Any other team is beatable. Against Japan, we had a very close match at the Asian Championships. Against Hong Kong and Korea, it's always open," he said.
Unlike the CWG, there is no third/fourth place game at the Asian Games, so a spot in the semifinal assures a medal.
"There will be lot of pressure on other teams as they know India are doing well. We're still the underdogs, but there will be pressure on opponents," said the 2004 CWG gold medalist.
India scalped eight medals at the 2018 CWG, their best-ever finish. Sharath pocketed three (men's team gold, men's singles bronze and men's doubles silver with G. Sathiyan).
"We need to stand up to the expectations of CWG as we did exceedingly well there. So if we can continue our form at the Asian Games, more than individually, the sport will benefit a lot. The sport in India will get the kind of recognition which has been due for a very long time," Sharath said.
The Indian squad will be headed to Chengdu (China) for a 10-day camp before the Games.
Sharath said although the paddlers hate going to that part of the world, they always return as faster players.
"We hate having training camps in China. The food is bad, everything is bad. But one thing which is good there is the practice system. They don't teach you anything. They don't want anybody to get better. But the only thing which is good is, even with weak players who we get (for) sparring, they have speed in the ball, body, foot work and their thought process. That is exactly the reason why we are going there.
"Whenever we are playing in Asia, China is the place to train despite adversities as we get faster at the end of the day. There will be lot of multi-ball training which I think they are best at.
"So with multi-ball training, you can do a lot of corrections to your technique, timing and it is the fitness part also," the Arjuna awardee explained.
What are the areas Sharath feels the team needs to work on?
"We cannot think on those lines. It's too close now," he opined.
"There is no time to work on weaknesses now. We've spent the last two years doing that. Now it's about sharpening the skills. For example, my serves have been good and I need to keep working on that," Sharath added.
Ranked World No.33, one short of his career best of 32 attained in 2015, Sharath placed hopes on G. Sathiyan and Harmeet Desai to do well along with him, if they are to return with a medal from Indonesia.
Personally, the ace paddler has a chance to break into the top-30 after the Asian Games. A win in the round of 32, which Sharath should accomplish by his own admission, will fetch him 540 points.
A victory in the team event will add 180 points to his tally. According to the just-released August rankings, Sharath is 504 points adrift of 30th ranked Chen Chien-An of Chinese Taipei.
"We three have to do well at the same time to get past the quarters hurdle. Any one slips up, and we are gone.
"I'm not concerned about my rankings as I know with the kind of form I'm in, I'll break into top 30 after the Asian Games," he signed off.
The Asian Games are set to be held from August 18 to September 2.
Men's squad: Achanta Sharath Kamal, Gnanasekaran Sathiyan, Anthony Amalraj, Harmeet Desai. Manav Thakkar.