A coveted double abroad

HE is a quality player, capable of high quality results. It was thus no surprise when Sanam Singh shrugged of his poor form and bagged a double crown in the Asian junior tennis championship in Seoul.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

HE is a quality player, capable of high quality results. It was thus no surprise when Sanam Singh shrugged of his poor form and bagged a double crown in the Asian junior tennis championship in Seoul. In doing so, he became the first Indian lad since Sandeep Kirtane in 1991 to win the coveted crown abroad.

Sanam Singh won the Asian junior singles title with a touch of assurance.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

Sunil Kumar and Arun Prakash along with Sania Mirza and Isha Lakhani had won the title in Delhi when the event was held in the Capital for a few years.

The 17-year-old Chandigarh lad, the soft-spoken Sanam had impressed the tennis fraternity for some time with his exceptional results, both in the junior and senior circuits. The good word about the boy's potential spread so much that the former Indian cricket captain Kapil Dev helped Sanam get a training stint with Nick Bollettieri in Florida recently.

The two-week training with the ultimate guru in the tennis world did not seem to have any magical impact on the boys's game, as Sanam won just one singles match in four weeks in Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Japan.

Of course, Sanam hastens to add that he realised the need for having high standards of physical fitness in Florida, rather than enhance his tennis skills. It was understandable as the baby-faced Sanam has everything it takes to make a champion except the physique and the power.

"This title is very important for my career'', says Sanam, as he puts the emphasis on the singles title. He had won the doubles title in the last edition itself in Chinese Taipei in partnership with the talented left-hander Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, and the duo were only defending it.

"In the first three weeks I had not won a match in singles. I cramped in one of the tournaments. The confidence was low. Things looked up once I won the doubles title in Philippines with Vivek Shokeen. In Japan, I managed to win a match in singles and made the doubles final with Jeevan'', recalls Sanam With one week left on the circuit and with his ranking in the 80s, Sanam knew that he had to really pull himself up and come with a good fare so that he could ensure his place in the ensuing Grand Slams.

"I knew that the doubles title along with a quarterfinal entry in singles in Korea in the B1 tournament which offers more points than a grade `I' tournament would be suffice to put me in the top-50. I played a lot freely once I achieved that target'', says Sanam. It was a mark of a champion that Sanam won both the singles and doubles finals with a touch of assurance. He beat the 24th ranked top seed Abdullah Magdas of Kuwait, who trains with a Swiss coach, 6-4, 6-2 in the singles final.

"I didn't expect to win the title. Winning was the last thing in my mind. I started well, breaking him in the first game after he was up 40-0, and played solid. I was very happy to finish it all so well'', says Sanam, as he looks back at his exploits in the tournament in which he beat compatriot Vivek Shokeen in three sets in the semifinals. Actually, both in the quarterfinals and semifinals, Sanam beat players who had beaten him in the previous meetings. The second-seeded Martin Sayer of Hong Kong had beaten Sanam in the quarterfinals of the last edition, and Sanam took his revenge in the same round this time in a draw of 64 in straight sets. In fact, Sanam did not drop a set except for the one against the third-seeded Shokeen when he prevailed 4-6, 6-2, 6-1.

"I got better and better in reaching a perfect end'', he says. Sanam had lost from being up a matchpoint in the first round of the third week, and it all proved a blessing in disguise as he was left with considerable energy for a fairytale finish.

"I want to get stronger. Am hitting the ball pretty well. In Korea, I hardly made any unforced errors. Of course, I need to have more speed on my serve'', says Sanam, as he looks ahead with ambition brightening his eyes. "The best part is that we have one more year in the junior circuit after the current season. We can really build ourselves up and become world No.1 some day. That is our goal'', says Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, who has been quite impressive overall in the last few months both in the junior and senior circuits.

"The Grand Slams offer the best chance to make an impact and to really boost your ranking. Competition is tough but it is not as if there are any unbeatable players. Everyone is beatable. There are no Rafael Nadals around in the junior circuit at the moment. On your day, you can beat them all'', opines Sanam.

The 17-year-old Jeevan also had his own set of problems. After a brilliant run at home when he hardly put a foot wrong, the Chennai lad hurt his little left toe in Malaysia. He had to return home but recovered quickly and thus was able to return to the circuit after two weeks.

"It was disappointing as I was playing such good tennis. On return, I enjoyed playing on the artificial grass in Japan and made it to both the singles and doubles finals. I was so happy to be playing good tennis immediately. Korea was a little different. I lost in the quarterfinals and nothing looked to go right for me that day'', says Jeevan. The talented doubles combination of Jeevan and Sanam had a tough start in Seoul as they perspired to beat Dong-Kyu Lee and Yo-Su Yoon of Korea 7-6 (2), 6-7 (4), 6-4 in the first round. Thereafter, the duo did not drop more than four games in a set in the next four matches.

Sanam and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan made it two in a row in the doubles.-SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

"Once we won the match we were ready for any team. Kept improving and played best tennis when it mattered in the semifinals and final, that were played on the same day. It feels great to be two-time Asian junior doubles champions'', says Jeevan.

Even when he was enduring the disappointment of having to return home, Jeevan got the happy tiding that he had been selected to be part of the ITF team for an eight-week stint in Europe for tournaments including the French Open and Wimbledon.

"We start with the Italian Open and play in Belgium, France, Germany and UK. We have a training camp in London before Wimbledon. It is going to be a great experience'', says Jeevan, ready to shift to the next gear.

The good thing is that the All India Tennis Association (AITA) will support Sanam Singh and Vivek Shokeen on the European circuit and send a coach along as has been the practice. With three Indians figuring in the top-30, you can definitely expect things to happen in Europe.

The fact that all the three boys have been playing with reasonable success in the men's circuit has helped them gain considerable confidence to blast their way through in the junior world. All the three have a good game and players like Jeevan and Vivek can really be explosive on court.

"They all have a very good game. They have seen most of the players and know how to tackle them. The key to success is to stay physically fit and mentally tough. I am quite positive that they would do very well in Europe'', says coach Gajendra Singh who accompanied the three boys in the five-week Asian circuit.

Well, the former world No.1 doubles star Mahesh Bhupathi may have to rethink now after having made a statement recently that the future of Indian tennis was with the women. You are sure to hear more about Sanam and company in the near future.