Tokyo: Sharath Kamal matched the legendary Ma Long stroke for stroke in the first three games before making a third round exit from the table tennis competition on Tuesday, ending India's medal-less yet impressive run at the Tokyo Olympics.
Following the unprecedented gains made from the 2018 Asian Games, where India won a table tennis medal for the first time ever, the performance of Sharath and Manika Batra in the round of 32 added significantly to the sport's growing popularity.
They both achieved a first by reaching the third round at the Summer Games.
A less tougher draw in mixed doubles, in which Sharath and Manika were seen as medal contenders, as well as in the men's singles could have seen the Indians scaling new heights.
The way 39-year-old Sharath played against Long has convinced him to think about competing in his fifth Olympics in Paris.
He fought tooth and nail in the first three games against the reigning Olympic and world champion Long before going down 7-11 11-8 11-13 4-11 4-11 in 46 minutes.
To have a player like Long under pressure in itself is a significant achievement for the seasoned Indian.
"It was the best three games and probably the best match and best tournament I ever played," Sharath told PTI.
The Chinese great too acknowledged that Sharath made it tough for him.
"It was a tough match. Of course at the Olympics every match, no matter the opponent, no matter the country, it's always tough," said Long.
"I did prepare for difficulties. The third game was crucial. After gutting it out the last two games were better," he added.
With Sharath's defeat, India's challenge ended in table tennis as Manika, Sutirtha Mukherjee and G Sathiyan had already exited the singles competition.
Sutirtha did well by winning a round on her maiden outing, while Sathiyan was the only one who underperformed by losing his opening match.
On Tuesday, Sharath took a 7-3 lead in the second game with some perfectly placed forehands, and he was also helped by some errors by Long.
The Chinese legend soon reduced the margin by taking five straight points, inducing backhand errors from the Indian.
A crushing forehand winner after a short rally gave Sharath a chance to close the second game in his favour and level the match.
Sharath responded extremely well to the balls hit close to his body to lead 4-2 in the third game but Long took four consecutive point to snatch the lead.
A backhand error from Sharath at 8-8 gave Long the advantage but the Indian did not let him close out the game easily. Long took a time out while leading 12-11 and came back to seal the third game and take a 2-1 lead.
A flurry of errors from Sharath and some better hitting from the Chinese put the Indian behind 0-6, a lead from where a comeback was not easy against a player of Long's calibre.
From an intense contest, it suddenly shifted in favour of Long who took a 6-0 lead in the fourth before going on to complete the ask.