India's Tokyo-bound table tennis contingent, spearheaded by veteran Sharath Kamal, will be looking to lay the ghost of medal drouth to rest in the upcoming Olympics, beginning from July 23. The table tennis quartet -- Achanta Sharath Kamal, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Manika Batra, and Sutirtha Mukherjee -- will eye the country's first-ever table tennis medal at the Olympics.
The Chinese domination in the sport, an unchartered territory demanding bio-bubble life, and over a billion expectations to fulfill -- the Indian table tennis unit is bound to ignore the pressure and achieve unprecedented success at Tokyo Olympics.
Sharath Kamal and G Sathiyan are set to represent India in the men's singles event while Manika Batra and Sutirtha Mukherjee will compete in women's singles. With the introduction of mixed doubles at the showpiece, Sharath and Manika have emerged as India's medal contenders.
The biggest challenge, however, will be China's supremacy. With a frightening array of talent at their disposal, the Chinese have dominated the proceedings so far, having won 28 of the 32 gold medals that have been awarded at the Games.
But the mixed doubles competition seems to be India's best bet for a medal. The Manika-Sharath pair stunned the World No. 5 Korean duo of Sang-Su Lee and Jihee Jeon in Doha to seal the mixed doubles spot for Tokyo.
Manika and Sharath need to win three games to lay their hands on an Olympic medal. Nine-time national champion and three-time Olympian Sharath will be eyeing Olympic glory before calling it a day.
The 39-year-old TT great may be in the latter phase of his career, but his hunger to succeed hasn't diminished one bit. Last year in March, he ended a decade-long wait for a Pro Tour title as he outclassed top seed Marcos Freitas to win the Oman Open. In his three Olympic appearances so far, Sharath has cleared the preliminary round on two occasions.
"The only thing I haven't won is the Olympics medal. That would be the best moment of my life and career. I'm really looking forward to this year's Olympic Games in Tokyo.
"You've to be passionate, set goals to stay motivated. It's all about winning medals, like in Commonwealth and Asian Games," Sharath had told India TV in an interview.
"The COVID-19 phase was tough as the Olympic preparations got stuck all of a sudden. You're in a space where don't know for what you're training for. Along with motivation from coaches, one of the crucial things was the support that I got from my wife and two kids. Being 38, I know my body in-and-out as I put in extra hours just on my fitness levels."
Talking about Manika, the 26-year-old claimed historic gold at the Commonwealth Games 2018 as she became the first Indian woman to win a singles gold at the event. Currently ranked 62, she was also the first woman player from India to break into the top-50 (career-best ranking of 47).
The Sharath-Manika pair, which currently sits 19th in the world rankings for mixed doubles, has already got an Asian Games bronze under its belt. A total of 16 pairs will line up to compete in the mixed doubles event at the Games, leaving Sharath-Manika with just three matches to grab a medal.
Not to take anything away from the Indian paddlers, but the mixed doubles category seems to be the country's best chance to bag an Olympic medal in table tennis.
India's schedule for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 (Table Tennis)
24 July: Men’s and Women’s Singles Preliminary Round (Time: 5:30 AM), Men’s and Women’s Singles Round 1 (Time: 10:45 AM and 4 PM), Mixed Doubles' Round of 16 (Time: 9:15 AM)
25 July: Men’s and Women’s Singles Round 2 (Time: 10:30 AM), Mixed Doubles Quarterfinals (Time: 6:30 AM), Mixed Doubles Semifinals (Time: 4:30 PM)
26 July: Men’s and Women’s Singles Round 2 (Time: 6:30 AM), Men’s and Women’s Singles Round 3 (Time: 11 AM), Mixed Doubles Medal Matches (Time: 4:30 PM)
27 July: Men’s and Women’s Singles Round 3 (Time: 11 AM), Men’s and Women’s Singles Round of 16 (Time: 11 AM and 4 PM)
28 July: Men’s and Women’s Singles Quarterfinals
29 July: Men’s Singles Semifinals and Medal matches for Women’s Singles
30 July: Medal matches for Men’s Singles