After 12 energy-sapping matches over three days, Achanta Sharath Kamal needed a chair to complete the customary media interactions at the NEC arena.
“I have no energy left. I am drained. I feel like the orange is completely squeezed, the juice is completely out, but it's been a fantastic two weeks,” he said, not able to hold back a range of emotions he was feeling at the time, after his first singles gold at CWG in 16 years.
India's finest ever table tennis player turned 40 last month and his body is nowhere close to what it was in 2006, when he won his first ever singles gold at the Commonwealth Games.
Yet, he found a way to better his past performances and end up with three gold and a silver in Birmingham. His dream run came after a challenging couple of weeks in which he was hardly able to sleep and back-to-back matches across events made the task harder.
He even woke up with a severe back ache on the morning of the men's singles final and could barely move. He carried the pain into the game, and after missing a regulation forehand due to stiffness, he feared getting injured. In the end, he was able to get the best out of his battered body.
Sharath is often asked these days, 'how does he do it at 40?'. He has become more lethal than ever with a much improve backhand complimenting his booming forehand drives. “Even the players here were asking me that how I am able to add a new stroke every time I play them. I don't have a proper answer to that, I can only say it is not easy.
“What I have been able to do at 40 is unbelievable in a very positive way. I was asking myself after the mixed doubles gold yesterday. How am I able to still play like this,” he wondered as bronze medallist and teammate G Sathiyan stood alongside him.
The singles gold was also his 13th medal across five Games alongside the Olympics, equalling the record held by Olympic medallist Feng Tianwei who regained the women's singles gold she had to lost to Manika Batra four years ago.
“These are probably my best ever games and probably the best ever two weeks of my life as far as table tennis is concerned. I am 40 years old. What more can I ask for,” said Sharath who plans to play till the 2024 Paris Olympics.
During COVID, he mainly trained in Chennai while the rest of teammates chose to travel overseas and play with clubs in Europe. He believes he found a way to improve his fitness during the pandemic.
“The COVID break gave me a lot of insight on what I could do physically. With the kind of routine we have had here, I would have been dead already two days ago (if it wasn't for the improved fitness).”
His greatness is undisputed but probably has not been appreciated enough over the past two decades. Manika Batra had pushed the sport into spotlight with her four-medal showing in Gold Coast four years ago and Sharath hopes his performances leads to millions of kids playing the game.
Though he is an Arjuna awardee and Padma Shri, his staggering accomplishments have often slipped under the radar. Ahead of the final, Sharath was announced as India's flagbearer for the closing ceremony, 16 years after he was first approached for the honour.
“May be it could have happened in 2006, there were talks about the opening ceremony and here as well when Neeraj got injured. The honour is for the entire fraternity not just for me. Makes me happy that we a have put the sport collectively into this kind of limelight,” said the ever-humble athlete.
His mixed doubles partner Sreeja Akula, who was just eight years old when Sharath won his first medal at the Games, summed up Sharath's personality rather aptly. “The best about him is that he says sorry when he loses a point and also says sorry after I lose a point,” she said with a laugh.
Sharath knows he can't be greedy in this business but having missed the doubles gold, he is not completely content. Will that push him to be at a sixth Commonwealth Games four years down the line? "Never say never,” he concluded.