A perfect ending to a fairy-tale season

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

R. Arun Prakash won the boys singles title. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

IT was the icing on the cake. In a year when the Indian juniors, with their dreams considerably stoked midway through the season by the Wimbledon junior doubles crown of Sania Mirza, affixed their stamp of authority in tournaments around the world, R. Arun Prakash and Isha Lakhani gave a perfect ending to a fairy-tale season, by winning the Asian junior titles.

The 18-year-old Arun Prakash, training at the Randy Mani Tennis Academy in New York, had suddenly woken up to the need to compete in the ITF junior events. When he won the grade `III' event on grass in the U.S. early in the season, the serve and volley specialist, who has the grace of a natural left-hander, firmly believed that he should go further and gain valuable match experience before plunging into the men's professional tour.

Isha Lakhani won and girls singles title. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

The idea worked as Arun continued to do well, both in singles and doubles, ending the year as No. 35 in singles and No. 12 in doubles. Not a bad achievement for a lad who had played only 10 tournaments in singles and eight in doubles in the junior circuit. "This title means a lot to me. It is great to be the Asian junior champion," said Arun.

The two-time National junior champion from Chennai who has always liked to serve and volley has indeed come of age, and would be trying to tighten his game.

Actually, Arun was not planning to compete in the Asian junior championship, let alone think of becoming the champion. But the Development Officer of the AITA, Sunil Yajaman, convinced the lad that it would be worthwhile to make an attempt and offered him a wild card in the Futures events that preceded the tournament, to make sure that the young man boarded the flight to India.

Karan Rastogi (left) and Somdev Dev Varman won the boys' doubles. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

It was a similar story in the case of Isha Lakhani, another 18-year-old, who has been focussing on the women's tour and had met with success as well by reaching the final of a Challenger, a rare effort by an Indian girl in the last few years. Isha was scheduled to fly to Italy for training with Bob Brett with support from MSLTA, but was convinced that she should forego one of the four weeks of training and try to win the title in Delhi. As it turned out, Isha, seeded second despite her unimpressive ranking of 232, thanks to the ITF approval to consider her WTA ranking also, raced to the title, beating a couple of talented and highly ranked Chinese Taipei girls on the way.

In fact, Isha won the doubles title as well, in partnership with the top-seeded Yung-Jan Chan of Chinese Taipei, ranked No. 15 in the world, before boarding the flight to Italy to join Sania Mirza and Megha Vakharia in training.

"It is not like winning another ITF title. The tag of Asian junior champion will be with them all their life. For what the Indian juniors have done through the season, it is a great finish," said Yajaman who has been masterminding many a young career with astute planning.

Yung-Jan Chan of Chinese Taipei and Isha Lakhani, the girls' doubles winners, in action. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

Karan Rastogi and Somdev Dev Varman would have loved to win the singles title rather than end up with another of those doubles titles. The 17-year-old Karan had a memorable year, but the title eluded him. The young man, however, would be ready for the next season when he would be in the top 10 of both singles and doubles. In fact, Divij Sharan finished the year as No. 5 in doubles, while Karan and Somdev were joint No. 6. To have three Indians in the top 10 was indeed terrific, along with Sania being at No. 2 in the girls' doubles after having been No. 1 briefly. Somdev hurt his shoulder early, and thus could not literally shoulder the responsibility any further in a tournament when he had looked the best bet, what with his recent triumph over Asiam Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan in the Futures event in Mumbai. Tushar Liberhan has been having the best season, hardly putting a foot wrong, be it in the junior or senior tournaments. He lost to one of the best talents seen in this part, the third-seeded Chu-Huan Yi of Taipei. Yi served thunderbolts through the tournament, before losing to Arun in the final.

Sanam Singh, returning to the circuit after losing a few months due to intestinal infection, showed some of his talent, and more would be known about him soon.

Among the girls, the Bhambri sisters, Sanaa and Ankita, were a bit rusty, but were good enough to make the doubles final. With further training and match play, the two can make bigger strides. Tara Iyer would have provided an interesting twist to the Indian aspirations, but the 15-year-old was busy in tournaments in the U.S.

Agung Bagus Dewantoro of Indonesia and G. K. Shweta took the under-14 boys' and girls' singles titles respectively. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

She will be the one who will be pushing the Indian girls to higher standards, if she adds patience to her vibrant game.

There was an under-14 event to nurture the talent, and there was an offer made to provide training for a month at the ITF academy in Spain for the winners.

Agung Bagus Dewantoro of Indonesia and G. K. Shweta captured the titles to win themselves a scholarship for higher education in the game.

It was also a nice way for the host to sign off its three-year commitment to host the championship. Sunil Kumar and Sania Mirza had won the titles in 2001 and 2002 respectively, and it was a double delight this time. In fact, the Indians swept all the four titles.

"Now that we have set high standards, we will have to work harder to retain our status, when the event is held in some other country next year. Among the players, Karan will be the one to watch next season, as he has considerably sharpened his game to be ready to win the big titles," said Yajaman.

The results (finals):

Boys: Singles: R. Arun Prakash bt Chu-Huan Yi (Tpe) 6-4, 6-4.

Doubles: Karan Rastogi and Somdev Dev Varman bt Chu Huan Yi and Chun Yuan Chen (Tpe) 6-2, 5-7, 7-5.

Girls: Singles: Isha Lakhani bt Yung-Jan Chan (Tpe) 6-4, 3-0 (retired).

Agung Bagus Dewantoro of Indonesia and G. K. Shweta took the under-14 boys' and girls' singles titles respectively. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

Doubles: Yung-Jan Chan (Tpe) and Isha Lakhani bt Ankita Bhambri and Sanaa Bhambri: 7-5, 0-6, 6-1.

Under-14: Boys: Singles: Agung Bagus Dewantoro (Ina) bt Agnel Gladwin 7-6 (7-4), 6-3.

Doubles: Fendy Gunawan and Agung Bagus Dewantoro (Ina) bt Agnel Gladwin and Tariq Jacob 3-6, 6-4, 7-5.

Girls: Singles: G.K. Shweta bt Ashmitha Easwaramoorthi 7-5, 6-0.

Doubles: G.K. Shweta and Ashmitha Easwaramoorthi bt Parija Maloo and Poojashree Venkatesh 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.