A golden double for Aisam Qureshi

HE had done it on his own, all along. Serving big with all his heart, stroking with punch and precision, playing tennis with tremendous flair and winning titles with professional determination had become a way of life for the journeyman on the professional tour.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi, with an all-round show, downed Harsh Mankad in the singles final. This was the Pakistani's third title on the trot. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

HE had done it on his own, all along. Serving big with all his heart, stroking with punch and precision, playing tennis with tremendous flair and winning titles with professional determination had become a way of life for the journeyman on the professional tour.

When the 23-year-old Pakistani, had his father, mother, brother and sister watching him in action in the Capital, having travelled from Lahore specifically for that purpose, the cheerful Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi had a lot of incentive to be at his competitive best.

It was the fag end to a tiring season, and he had been doing well both in singles and doubles of late, but Aisam looked to be on a mission, as he cajoled himself to a double crown in the $10,000 ITF Futures tournament in Delhi.

There were not many in the field who could challenge the second-seeded Pakistani on equal terms, for the lad was much superior, as was evident from the manner in which he had tamed the field on way to two singles titles on the trot in Nakhorn Ratchasima in Thailand and in Dehra Dun. Those were his first two singles titles for the season.

Aisam performed a hat-trick, beating the top-seeded Harsh Mankad in a tense final. Obviously, both the players were not at their best, but the Pakistani youngster had enough ammunition in his arsenal to blow away the challenge from the Indian Davis Cupper in the climax.

Harsh could have made a match of it, had he not committed those errors in the tie-break of the first set, when he put regulation volleys out. Maybe, he lacked the zip in his feet and was a step slow, having spent considerable energy with high quality efforts in the previous rounds against Sunil Kumar and Jasper Smit of the Netherlands.

In both those matches, Harsh raised the level of his game, and counter-punched with delightful authority to assert himself. In comparison, he was flat on his feet in the final, though he was competent to make it a close affair in the first set. Even in the second set, Harsh had his chances but he was unable to capitalise on the break, and surrendered rather meekly.

Yet, Harsh could feel happy about his performance as it was his first final of the season. His other notable effort was in making it to the semifinals of the Challenger in Bangalore. Aisam had played a close match against Melvyn Op Der Heijde of the Netherlands in the first round the previous week in Dehra Dun, but did not drop more than four games in taming the same opponent the second time. That showed his ability to analyse his opponent's game and play accordingly.

In fact, Aisam dropped only 19 games in winning his first four matches, before locking horns with the top seed. His big serves helped Aisam ride on with his success story.

The young man has been visiting India for tournaments in the last few years, and has been quite at home in Indian conditions and friendly with the Indian players.

The Indo-Pakistan pair of Harsh Mankad (right) and Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi won the doubles crown. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

Aisam had won a Challenger in the U.S. with Rohan Bopanna earlier in the season, and he joined hands with Harsh to win the Futures title. In an entertaining final, the Indo-Pakistani combination beat the Asian Games bronze medallists, Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal in three sets.

It was the second successive loss in a final for Mustafa and Vishaal, but the duo provided a lively fare before buckling down in the climax.

It was gratifying to see Sunil Kumar play the way we believe he can. The talented left-hander, slowly understanding the intricacies of the professional tour, played some of the best tennis that we have seen from him in the Capital, till he went back into a shell against Harsh in the semifinals.

Self-doubts seemed to have overpowered Sunil as he pushed around tentatively and bowed out eventually, even as Harsh tightened his hold with a solid game, hitting quality returns.

When he beat the finalist of the previous week, Nick Crawley of Britain in the second round, 6-0, 6-2, Sunil Kumar was at his fluent best. He served and stroked with aggression, going for broke, and winning the gamble every time he put racquet on the ball.

If he plays with similar confidence, Sunil will be in a different league. He had won a double crown in Tunisia, and had been winning doubles titles with Ajay Ramaswami. So, Sunil has indeed tasted success on the professional tour. He needs to relish his tennis a lot more, and come out of the self-imposed shackles that keep him down. When he does that, Sunil will be a handful for most. And, if he keeps looking out for a coach to guide him, Sunil would have lost the race sooner than later. It is time he understood the realities of life and got on with the game.

Among others, Punna Vishal was possibly denied a well-deserved appearance in the semifinals, by two poor calls by the umpire in the climax in the quarterfinals against Sergei Krotiouk of Russia. Punna missed a matchpoint with a poor backhand, and was unable to enact his bravado when he had got past the third-seeded Matwe Middelkoop of the Netherlands in the previous round. It was indeed another fruitful week for Punna, in his tennis education. The long hours spent on court would stand him in good stead.

Vinod Sridhar defeated Dmitri Mazur of Uzbekistan in the first round, and was lucky to get past the Afro-Asian Games champion, Vijay Kannan, who had the match under control till he retired with a shoulder trouble. Vinod was unable to match Sunil as the contest progressed in the quarterfinals, in a duel between contrasting left-handers.

Somdev Dev Varman did well to win a round into the main draw after coming through the qualifying event. If he keeps playing an attacking game, and keeps adding kilometres to his first serve, Somdev should soon be able to make a mark in the men's world. The best Indian junior at the moment, Karan Rastogi, also came through the qualifying event, but did not take chances in the first round against the third-seeded Middelkoop. He had done well in the Challenger at the same venue earlier, and when he adds experience and muscle to his frame, Karan will be a different proposition.

Two-time National junior champion R. Arun Prakash teased Harsh Mankad by winning the first set, but had no answers in the next two, in a first round duel. Though he relies on a touch-game, Arun would do well to play forceful strokes, not just in the doubles event, in which he has gained considerable mastery already in collaboration with Divij Sharan, as the duo made it to the semifinals before bowing out to the eventual champions.

Nitin Kirtane and Kamala Kannan also made the main draw from the 64-draw qualifying event, but were unable to pull ahead any further. Nitin had his chances to stretch the contest into the decider against the energetic Mikhail Ledovskikh of Russia, but Kamala Kannan was stopped firmly by the eventual champion. Nitin, returning to the circuit after marriage, vowed that he would be ready for the National championship to be played at the same venue.

The Delhi Lawn Tennis Association (DLTA) offered hospitality to the players which helped the tournament gain the status of a $15,000 event for points calculation. Thus, the winner got 18 ATP points instead of 12.

If anything, the high number of Satellites, Futures and Challengers in the season, have offered maximum chances to make points and money for the Indian players, in recent times. The fact that Indian lads have been able to make a mark, despite the absence of Prakash Amritraj and Rohan Bopanna was indeed a good augury.

The results:

Singles (final): Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi (Pak) bt Harsh Mankad 7-6 (7-4), 6-4; Semifinals: Harsh Mankad bt Sunil Kumar 2-6, 6-1, 6-4; Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi bt Sergei Krotiouk (Rus) 6-1, 6-2; Quarterfinals: Harsh Mankad bt Jasper Smit (Ned) 6-3, 7-6 (7-3); Sunil Kumar bt Vinod Sridhar 7-5, 6-3; Sergei Krotiouk bt Punna Vishal 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (7-5); Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi bt Melvyn Op Der Heijde (Ned) 6-3, 6-1.

Doubles (final): Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi (Pak) and Harsh Mankad bt Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal 3-6, 6-1, 6-3; Semifinals: Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi and Harsh Mankad bt R. Arun Prakash and Divij Sharan 6-1, 6-2; Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal w.o. Matwe Middelkoop and Melvyn Op Der Heijde (Ned).