A dream come true for Abhinn Shyam

RAKESH RAO

ABHINN SHYAM GUPTA could not have asked for a better setting. With an ankle-fracture keeping the All-England champion P. Gopi Chand away from seeking his fifth straight National singles title and top-seed Chetan Anand making a premature exit, the second-seed from Allahabad did just enough to live up to the expectations of the partisan Lucknow crowd in the richest National badminton championship ever.

"I think God is with me," said Abhinn Shyam Gupta after winning his maiden National title.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Living dangerously, the unassuming Abhinn almost let the opportunity slip. Not once, but twice. But call it a victory for his resilience or the blessings of the almighty, Abhinn survived the close calls to come out stronger at the end of the day.

Abhinn's two stunning victories, which took him to the summit, overshadowed everything else: Aparna Popat's fourth straight title, Madhumita Bisht joining hands with Markose Bristow to win mixed doubles title for the 12th time in what was her 25th and last appearance in the championship, the maiden doubles titles for Sanave Thomas and V. Diju as well as Neelima Chaudhary and D. Swetha.

To understand why the focus remained on Abhinn, just picture this: Whether in the semifinal against Nikhil Kanetkar or in the title-match against Arvind Bhatt, Abhinn trailed 4-6 in the decisive game. But he managed to extricate himself from the deep hole and accomplished the job on hand. These victories should go down as the most dramatic in the campaign of any eventual champion in the National championship. Abhinn received Rs. one lakh, twice as much as Bhatt, in the championship which offered Rs. eight-lakh as prize-money.

Aparna Popat won her fourth straight singles title. In fact it was a cakewalk for the champion.-SANDEEP SAXENA

"I think God is with me," was how Abhinn chose to put it after the final. "It is a dream come true for me," said the champion before quickly adding, "I must thank Gopi for not playing the tournament."

Gopi, who was injured at Milton Keynes while preparing for the Copenhagen Masters in December, was around, at the behest of the organisers, to watch Abhinn's escape to victory against Kanetkar."It is a good result but the quality of the match could have been better," said Gopi, who last watched a National semifinal at Patiala, after losing the quarterfinal to Rajiv Bagga.

In fact, Abhinn was extremely lucky against the left-handed Kanetkar in the deciding game. Once Abhinn made it 6-6, Kanetkar chose to set the game only to seven points thereby letting Abhinn serve for the match. A weak return from Kanetkar saw Abhinn smash down the middle to score an unbelievable win that sent the crowd into a frenzy.

Winners all (l to r): Neelima Chaudhary and D. Swetha (women's doubles); Sanave Thomas and V. Diju ( men's doubles).-SANDEEP SAXENA

A day later, it was Bhatt who let three-match points slip after leading 5-1 in the decider. As Abhinn reproduced the late magic to win, Bhatt collapsed on the court in despair. But that did not stop a couple of overzealous fans of Abhinn to hop right over the spirited Karnataka challenger to greet the new champion in a hurry.

What cleared Abhinn's path was the surprise defeat of top seed Chetan Anand at the hands of Varanasi-lad Ravinder Singh in the quarterfinals. The four-game victory came about when Chetan failed to check the flow of unforced errors in the fourth game. Ravinder, however, found himself blasted by Bhatt in the semifinal before Abhinn was made to fight all the way by Kanetkar.

Kanetkar had earlier put out Sachin Ratti, the man who had played so well in helping Railways reach the final. Ratti, who had beaten Gopi Chand in straight games in Udaipur in December, had his chances against Kanetkar in the deciding game but just could not play the big points better.

Madhumita Bisht and Markose Bristow, mixed doubles winners.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Among the women, Aparna's success was never in doubt. With Manjusha Kanwar not in the fray following a knee-surgery, Aparna did not face a single meaningful challenger. Barring the dropping of the opening game in the semifinal against C. H. Deepti, Aparna looked in control right through her campaign. Third seeded Trupti Murgunde, who destroyed second seed and two-time champion P. V. V. Laxmi in the other semifinals, was no match to Aparna. The winner's cheque was Rs. 80,000 while the runner-up got Rs. 40,000.

The entry of the top four seeds into the semifinals in the women's section was a validation of the seedings. But the loss of Divya Ramesh to unseeded Sreelaxmi remained the biggest upset of the women's competition.

Only last summer, Divya had, through legal proceedings, staked her claims for a berth in the National team for the World Championship. And here, she was made to surrender by a junior girl!

In the doubles, it was the mixed event which proved to be a special one. Madhumita, winner of eight singles, nine doubles and 12 mixed doubles titles besides the 1977 National sub-junior crown, was keen to sign off her last campaign in the championship in style. And she did.

The victorious PSCB men (l to r): Sitting: Nikhil Kanetkar, Chetan Anand, Abhinn Shyam Gupta and Ajit Wijetilak. Standing: Jaseel P. Ismail, Markose Bristow, Dinesh Khanna, Siddarth Jain (skipper) and Pradeep Iyengar (manager).-SANDEEP SAXENA

"I am very happy because every National title is special," said the 37-year-old Madhumita, a Sports Officer with Northern Railway. Madhumita and Bristow tamed Diju and Fatima in the final. It is truly amazing that even at this age, Madhu remains consistently hungry for success. On the flip side, it also reflects the lack of class and spirit in the present generation of teenaged players to come anywhere close to the evergreen champion.

Sanave Thomas and V. Diju, the new and exciting doubles pair on the National scene, outwitted top seeds Jaseel P. Ismail and Jaison Xavier in the final to announce their arrival in the big league. This triumph also maintained the supremacy of the Kerala players in the doubles competition.

The triumph of Neelima and Swetha was more surprising. They survived several close calls on way to the final before coming good against Fatima Nazneen and C. H. Deepti.

In fact, the injury to G. Jwala upset all calculations in the women's doubles. Jwala twisted her ankle in the match against Samapada Shetye and lost. Later, she and Shruti Kurien chose to withdraw from the doubles semifinals. This decision also brought a premature end to the pair's title-defence. P. V. V. Laxmi and her sister Sarada Reddy also were forced to withdraw after the latter twisted her knee in the doubles quarterfinals.

The triumphant PSCB women's team (l to r): B. R. Meenakshi, G. Jwala, Shruti Kurien and Aparna Popat.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Earlier, the team championship went on expected lines with Petroleum Sports Control Board making a sweep of titles for the third year in succession. PSCB also made history by becoming the first team to do so.

Railways entered the men's final with Ratti winning his singles and doubles in the quarter and semifinals.

Arup Baidya, too, played his part well in taking Railways to the final. However, in the final, Abhinn's victory over Ratti ensured that the Railways did not stretch the final.

Among the women, Air-India could not come anywhere close to challenging PSCB.

Overall, the conduct of the championship, dedicated to the memory of Syed Modi, was good. Though there were complaints of stomach-upset, among other from Thomas Kurien, Siddharth Jain, Trupti Murgunde, and so on, the organisers did well to protect their reputation of being the 'best' host in the country.

The results:

Men's singles: Final: Abhinn Shyam Gupta (PSCB) bt Arvind Bhatt (Kar) 0-7, 7-2, 7-0, 6-8, 8-6; Semifinals: Arvind Bhatt (Kar) bt Ravinder Singh (UP) 7-1, 7-5, 7-1; Abhinn Shyam Gupta (PSCB) bt Nikhil Kanetkar (PSCB) 7-5, 3-7, 5-7, 7-3, 7-6.

Women's singles: Aparna Popat (PSCB) bt Trupti Murgunde (AI) 7-5, 7-3, 7-1; Semifinals: Aparna Popat (PSCB) bt C. H. Deepti (AP) 4-7, 7-1, 7-5, 7-1; Trupti Murgunde (AI) bt P. V. V. Laxmi (PSCB) 7-0, 7-3, 7-0.

Men's doubles: Final: Sanave Thomas and V. Diju (Ker) bt Jaseel P. Ismail and Jaison Xavier (PSCB) 7-5, 7-3, 6-8, 7-5; Semifinals: Jaseel P. Ismail and Jaison Xavier (PSCB) bt Mitesh Hazarnis and J. B. S. Vidyadhar (Rlys) 6-8, 7-4, 7-2, 7-3; Sanave Thomas and V. Diju (Ker) bt Markose Bristow (PSCB) and Vijaydeep Singh (Rlys) 8-6, 7-4, 8-6.

Women's doubles: Final: Neelima Chaudhary and D. Swetha (AP) bt Fatima Nazneen (AI) and C. H. Deepti (AP) 8-6, 7-3, 7-1; Semifinals: Fatima Nazneen (AI) and C. H. Deepti (AP) w.o. G. Jwala and Shruti Kurien (PSCB); Neelima Chaudhary and D. Swetha (AP) bt B. R. Meenakshi (PSCB) and Oli Deka (Asm) 1-7, 7-5, 7-3, 7-2.

Mixed doubles: Final: Markose Bristow (PSCB) and Madhumita Bisht (Rlys) bt V. Diju (Ker) and Fatima Nazneen (AI) 7-4, 7-2, 7-1; Semifinals: V. Diju (Ker) and Fatima Nazneen (AI) w.o. J. B. S. Vidyadhar (Rlys) and G. Jwala (PSCB); Markose Bristow (PSCB) and Madhumita Bisht (Rlys) bt Ajay Kanwar (Del) and Archana Deodhar (Mah) 8-6, 7-8, 7-4, 7-0.

Team championship:

Men: Final: PSCB beat Railways 3-0 (Abhinn Shyam Gupta bt Sachin Ratti 1-7, 6-8, 7-5, 7-5, 7-2; B. Chetan Anand bt Mangrish Palekar 7-0, 7-2, 7-1; Jaseel P. Ismail and Markose Bristow bt Vijaydeep Singh and Sachin Ratti 7-2, 6-8, 7-4, 8-6).

Semifinals: PSCB beat Gujarat 3-0 (Chetan Anand bt Major Singh 7-0, 7-1, 8-6; Abhinn Shyam Gupta bt Anuj Gupta 7-3, 7-5, 7-3; Jaseel P. Ismail and Nikhil Kanetkar bt Anuj Gupta and Sameer Abbasi 7-2, 8-6, 7-1).

Railways beat Kerala 3-1 (Sachin Ratti bt Joy T. Anthony 7-2, 3-7, 7-1, 7-3; Mangrish Palekar bt Rupesh Kumar 8-3, 8-6, 7-1; Mitesh Hazarnis and J. B. S. Vidyadhar lost to Jaison Xavier and V. Diju 7-3, 5-7, 7-1, 7-4; Arup Baidya bt Sanave Thomas 7-3, 8-7, 7-0).

Women: Final: PSCB beat Air-India 2-0 (Aparna Popat bt Trupti Murgunde 7-0, 8-6, 7-8, 7-2; G. Jwala and Shruti Kurien bt Trupti and Fatima Nazneen 2-7, 8-6, 7-0, 7-5).

Semifinals: PSCB beat Assam 2-0 (Aparna Popat bt Oli Deka 7-1, 7-3, 7-1; G. Jwala and Shruti Kurien bt Oli and Abantika Deka 7-1, 7-1, 7-2).

Air-India beat Andhra Pradesh 2-1 (Trupti Murunde bt Neelima Chaudhary 7-0, 7-2, 7-5; Trupti and Fatima Nazneen lost to Neelima and D. Swetha 3-7, 7-5, 4-7, 7-3; Fatima bt C. H. Deepthi 1-7, 8-6, 7-0, 7-4).