A quantum leap by the juniors

FROM No. 5 in the country to No. 5 in the world, it has been a quantum leap for the young man from Delhi.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

FROM No. 5 in the country to No. 5 in the world, it has been a quantum leap for the young man from Delhi. Quite impressively, he accomplished that task in the intensely competitive world of junior tennis in just about six months.

Divij Sharan (left) and R. Arun Prakash broke into the top 10 of the World junior doubles by winning in the Osaka Super Juniors ITF tournament.-

Divij Sharan was just like any of the Indian kids, hitting the tennis ball with hunger for a few hours every day, working out in the gym, travelling from one tournament to another in search of points and exposure, but keeping an eye on education all the time, ensuring in his own simple way, that nothing got mixed up, not in the least his priorities.

"Divij is a dream trainee, but it is a big surprise that he has progressed so fast in the rankings'', said the AITA junior development officer, Sunil Yajaman, who has been making the programme for Divij, even before the young lad was drafted into the National Tennis Academy (NTA).

Yes, the first year student of the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi, Divij did spring a surprise by shooting up from No. 147 in the year-end ranking of 2002, to be No. 5 in the world, albeit in doubles.

"Our target at the beginning of the year was that he should reach the top100 in singles and 50 in doubles. We are delighted at the progress, and would focus now on getting his singles record straight'' said Madhav Sharan, Divij's father, who has been diligently implementing the plans for the development of his determined ward.

Karan Rastogi has been winning the grade `I' titles with ease. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

It is not as if Divij has not met the singles target, he did by reaching a career-best 101, but the glaring difference as compared to the speed of progress in doubles, may put a grain of doubt in the mind.

After focussing on his twelfth standard board examinations, in which he came out with flying colours with 82 per cent, Divij picked up his kit bag in April to travel to Uzbekistan, Morocco, South Africa, Canada, US, Japan, Hong Kong and Bangkok in his bid to scale the slippery rankings ladder.

Divij had tried his hand briefly in touraments in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, apart from Ukraine and Sri Lanka last year, but that was mainly to get a taste of international competition. This time around it was time to deliver the winning punches and bolster one's confidence for the bigger challenges ahead.

The biggest success came in the Grade `A' tournament in Japan, the Osaka Super Juniors event, on par in status with the Grand Slams, as Divij in the company of R. Arun Prakash won the doubles title. The duo had earlier won a grade `II' tournament in South Africa, and shot up to their best possible ranking later by winning another grade `II' tournament in Hong Kong.

While he was not playing with the talented Arun Prakash who has competed only in eight tournaments to reach No. 10 in doubles and 68 in singles, Divij partnered G. D. Jones of New Zealand in adding invaluable ranking points to his kitty. The Indo-Kiwi pair won the Canadian Open grade `I' title, and a washout of the doubles event in the US Open meant that they could not try their hand on the Grand Slam stage.

Though he has learnt Indian vocal music for five years and performed on stage in cultural events, Divij is a soft-spoken lad, who sticks to his work regimen with discipline and an admirable clarity of mind. With the right advice coming his way, it has indeed been a rewarding season for the young lad, who did try his luck in the men's circuit by competing in the Futures and Challenger events with reasonable success.

However, success has not been that consistent in singles, as Divij has only a grade `II' final in South Africa to show, but if he tunes his game, there is no reason as to why he cannot overcome his limitations.

From the time when he was the third member of the Indian under-14 team behind Tushar Liberhan and Karan Rastogi, competing in the Asian and world junior events, the Delhi lad has really worked hard to be ahead of the 1300-odd players from around the world, ranked in the ITF list.

Sania Mirza reached the top 10 in singles apart from her success in the Wimbledon doubles. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

"Things are looking up a lot better than what it was, about two years ago. We were happy when Sunil Kumar, part of the AITA team on a tour of South East Asia, made the quarterfinals in a grade `II' tournament. Now, we are happy only when our kids win a grade `I' tournament'', said Sunil Yajaman as he summed up the overall mood.

Of course, there has been a lot of success in doubles this season, in grade `A', `I' and `II' events to keep everyone happy. Apart from Sania Mirza's Wimbledon doubles crown, a maiden achievement by an Indian girl, Karan Rastogi and Somdev Dev Varman have been winning the titles with ease in grade `I' events in Germany, Japan and Manila. Arun Prakash won a grade `I' in Kentucky with Eric Chvojka of Canada, beating the no.1 seeds Miles Kasiri of Britain and Karan Rastogi in two tie-breaks in the second round, apart from the third-seeded Divij Sharan and G. D. Jones in straight sets in the semifinals.

Karan Rastogi had a memorable outing in singles in that tournament, as he went down 3-6, 7-5, 5-7 to the top-seeded Leonardo Kirche of Brazil, saving six matchpoints on the way.

In fact, Karan has been focussing on singles in the second half of the season, and the results showed as he made it to the semifinals of the Osaka super juniors event in a draw of 64, bettering his own quarterfinal appearance the previous year.

Karan lost in three sets to Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus, and missed three matchpoints in the 12th game of the second set. Baghdatis had reached the semifinals of the 25,000 Challenger in India the previous week.

Karan had also made it to the semifinals of grade `I' events in Frankfurt and Manila earlier in the season, and there is no reason why he cannot make the next step soon. He had a good outing in a Challenger in Delhi, when he beat quality players in the qualifying event and stretched Arvind Parmar of Britain to three sets in the main draw. When he adds muscle to his strokes, Karan is going to be a very interesting prospect. Somdev Dev Varman comparatively has not been able to do much in singles at the junior level, except winning two grade `III' events, but the lad is learning fast to fight among the men.

Sanaa Bhambri partnering Sania Mirza won the doubles titles in Germany and Japan. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

In terms of singles, Arun Prakash has done well to win the grade `II' in Hong Kong apart from the grade `III' in the US. Tushar Liberhan was on song winning three grade `III' events in Uzbekistan and India from four finals, while Chatwinder Singh won a grade `IV' in Sri Lanka. Rupesh Roy had little difficulty in winning back to back grade `V' titles in Islamabad, while Navdeep Singh, Sumit Prakash Gupta, Sanam K. Singh, Vishnu Vardhan and Purav Raja made at least one singles final.

In fact, 19 Indian boys made it to at least one final in singles or doubles through the season, which augurs well for the future.

There have not been many singles titles in the girls' section, in which the 16-year-old Sania Mirza playing the 15-year-old Tara Iyer in a grade `I' tournament in Manila was the high point. Sania won that title and that paved the way for her reaching the top-10 in singles.

Sanaa Bhambri won a grade `III' title from three finals at home, apart from making the semifinals of a grade `I' in Thailand.

Her best came in doubles with Sania, as the two won titles in Germany and Japan, apart from reaching the semifinals of the French Open.

Ankita Bhambri won a grade `IV' in Gurgaon, while Ashmitha won two grade `V' events. Madura Ranganathan made it to a couple of finals, Vandana Murali won a couple of doubles events in grade `IV', Marutha Devi won a grade `IV' doubles title in Colombo, so did Ashimitha Easwaramurthi in a grade `V' in Amman, while Preethi Subramaniam and Sandri Gangotri won a grade `IV' in Mumbai.

Actually, 18 Indian girls made it at least to one final in singles and doubles through the season, making a statement that they were no less hungry for success in the international arena, as compared to the boys.

"We have a whole lot of juniors ranked in the ITF list both in boys and girls. The number is increasing. It is a healthy trend. At the AITA, we are trying to give the best possible exposure to the top players, by sending them to tournaments in Europe and the US, apart from the Asian circuit. Next year we plan to send teams to all the four Grand Slams'', said Yajaman, quite positive about the AITA's support to the development programme.

"We have the Asian junior championship coming up in December, and we hope to win the titles. Players like Ankita, Somdev and Karan need to win titles at this level to boost their confidence. Overall, there is a quantitative and qualitative development. That is a healthy sign'', said Yajaman.

At the same time, everybody is clear that the efforts in the junior world are mainly towards making a solid foundation, and that the real challenge would be in the professional circuit. The level of understanding has increased both among the players and the parents. Everyone is clear about the goals and the methods to reach them, the enormous investments necessary to be on the tour, without unduly putting pressure on themselves, which may prove counter-productive.

The kids, right from 13 years go through the grind in singles and doubles, becoming better every day, a fact that is generally well reflected in their world rankings.

When Divij Sharan is No. 5 in the world, it not only makes him work harder with conviction, that he is doing the right things, it makes hundreds of youngsters around the country believe that they too can reach a lot higher than where they figure. The very fact that a whole lot of Indian juniors are playing tournaments around the world through the year, reflects a healthy trend. The picture can only get better with time.