UTT 2019: Achanta Sharath Kamal, Madhurika Patkar pull off heist to help Chennai Lions beat Goa Challengers in second semi-final

Harshit Rakheja

As he won the golden point of the third game against Anthony Amalraj, Achanta Sharath Kamal's ecstasy knew no bounds. He leapt over the advertising board separating him from his dugout and soon went about landing bear hugs on anyone he could lay his sights on.

As he went over to acknowledge his opponent, the ramifications of that burst of excitement were visible. Sharath Kamal was clutching at his hamstring, limping across the mat.

His value to his team is too much at the moment for him to be pulling off careless stunts like that. Agreed! But no one can deny that the moment which prompted that seemingly reckless celebration from the veteran of the sport, was indeed a special one. It was literally, Sharath Kamal, the Chennai Lions captain, taking one huge step into the final with his team hopping aboard.

Before he took the floor for the mixed doubles match, partnering Petrissa Solja, Chennai Lions were trailing 1-5 in the tie. By the time Sharath Kamal was finished with his two matches, Chennai had drawn level at 6-6, eventually going on to win the tie 8-7.

Goa Challengers were trying a lesser-used combination for their mixed doubles in Cheng-I-Ching and Anthony Amalraj but to no avail, for they lost 0-3 to what seemed like a more seasoned Chennai pair.

With the tie score reading 5-4 with Goa still enjoying a one-game lead, Sharath Kamal didn't let up as he readied himself for the reverse men's singles match.

However, the first game had Anthony off the blocks in no time. There weren't many rallies allowed to fester by the 33-year-old Goa player who drew rampant errors from Kamal's forehand.

However, after closing out the first game 11-5, Anthony was dealt a reality check as Kamal landed his forehand winners, even when allowed minimal leeway, with the heavy topspin keeping the ball on the table. A late resurgence from Anthony left Kamal livid over every one of his missed chances. He held on though, taking the game 11-9.

The third game advanced on serve with the 37-year-old Kamal acing his wristy forehands and finishing the rallies in a couple of flashes.

Anthony kept to the task with his backhand fructifying his counter-attacking game. His backhand is unlike any other in that he pushes at the incoming shots with his racquet head bent downwards but held almost vertically upright.

On Saturday against Kamal, Anthony's backhand allowed him to change the direction of play with a shot which left his opponent wrong-footed and lurching sideways.

However, all of that proved ineffective in keeping Sharath Kamal's determination in check. The opportunity to avenge his defeat to Sharath Kamal in the group stages of the league came and went bust. Ultimately, Anthony lost in a manner which will serve as a painful reminder of the result of their previous match this season.

Then too, Anthony had won the first game, only to lose the next two, the third game on golden point on both the occasions.

In the post-match presser, Sharath Kamal talked about not carrying the pressure of being down by four points in the tie. "I knew that if we were to win, I'd have to win both my matches with the margin being 3-0 in either one of them. But if I had carried that pressure with myself while playing, it would have probably not turned out as well for my team," he said.

Earlier in the day, Chennai Lions' Tiago Apolonia faced Goa Challengers' Alvaro Robles in what turned out to be an archetypical European slugfest. Both wasted no time in moving away from the table and engaging in their natural style of play.

Robles took an early lead but Apolonia soon whittled the deficit by putting a heavy spin on the ball. It seemed that Robles, who was winning on brute force till then was caught unaware, failing to ace the deft touch. The Goa player ranked 56 in the world went from leading 6-2 to trailing 7-9 in the first game.

However, he managed to break the logjam, closing out the game on golden point.

Apolonia soon recorded the first points of the day for his side, winning the second game 11-6. Thereon, Robles knew better than to play the waiting game and hoping for Tiago to commit errors. Instead, he went for the kill on the first touch off his serve.

When he didn't, he was pushed away from the table by his opponent and had to play the backhand drive to keep the ball in play. All this while, Tiago never lost his head in going for the kill but went about slotting half-smashes safely down both flanks.

The players engaged in a 29-shot rally, only to trump it with a 30-shot rally soon after. The latter had Alvaro sliding across the mat on his knees like a football player celebrating a goal. Only in this case, Alvaro slid forward as he chased a Tiago return which had dropped short.

He got back up in no time and found an opening to flit across the mat for a down the line forehand winner. Alvaro won the match 2-1 but with Sharath Kamal's four points negating Chennai's deficit, it was down to the last match between Goa's Archana Kamath and Chennai's Madhurika Patkar.

If the ensuing drama hadn't been enough, the last match went into a deciding third game. As Madhurika took a 10-6 lead with four match points, Archana Kamath rallied back and so did the crowd in Goa's corner. The score got pushed to the golden point until Madhurika's unflinching focus proved too much for Archana who returned a couple of forehand smashes before sending one wide.

Chennai Lions beat Goa Challengers 8-7

Women's Singles: Petrissa Solja lost to Cheng I-Ching 0-3 (7-11, 9-11, 8-11)

Men's Singles: Tiago Apolonia lost to Alvaro Robles 1-2 (10-11, 11-6, 3-11)

Mixed Doubles: Sharath Kamal / Petrissa Solja bt Amalraj Anthony / Cheng I-Ching 3-0 (11-5, 11-4, 11-8)

Men's Singles: Sharath Kamal bt Amalraj Anthony 2-1 (5-11, 11-9, 11-10)

Women's Singles: Madhurika Patkar bt Archana Kamath 2-1 (6-11, 11-8, 11-10)

Sunday's fixture: Final Match between Dabang Delhi TTC and Chennai Lions at 7 pm on Star Sports 1, Star Sports 1 HD, Star Sports Select 1, Star Sports Select 1 HD, Hotstar and JioTV.

Also See: UTT 2019: Sharath Kamal unfurls vintage bag of tricks as Chennai Lions pip Goa Challengers to top league table

UTT 2019: Benedikt Duda, Kirill Gerassimenko credit league for improvements in their game; Matilda Ekholm predicts bright future for Indian table tennis

UTT 2019: Sharath Kamal's heroics guide Chennai Lions to exhilarating win over Goa Challengers, into final against Dabang Delhi

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