A refreshing change

KIRTI PATIL

SELDOM has so humble and so unobtrusive a person as R. Uma Devi ascended the summit.

Uma Devi, who won the National billiards title.-PARAS SHAH

In billiards, a sport in which style and finesse run parallel with etiquette, Uma Devi's triumph over the favourites was a refreshing change on the Indian cue sport scene.

Early predictions were consigned to the wastepaper basket as the new format of race-through-50-points, instead of the tested time format, caused problems for the leading players.

"The time format used in the Chennai Nationals should have been retained. In 50-point format, luck comes into play and one gets under pressure," says Anuja Thakur, who failed to defend her title.

Regardless of whether a section of players had reservations about the new format, the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India (BSFI) should revert to the old scoring system. As it is, the quality of play was anything but enjoyable.

Since the players needed to reach the mark of 50 to win a game in a best-of-five match, the contests unnecessarily became long-drawn. Had the matches been played on time format, like in the men's tournament, both the players and the audience would have got the value for the time.

Pitifully, the field was missing Pooja Galundia, the runner-up of the 2001 edition, as also the last year's semifinalist Amrita Mohapatra of Orissa. Pooja failed to make it to the Ahmedabad Nationals owing to ill health. With only two semifinalists of the Chennai Nationals - Uma Devi and Anuja - in the fray, the tournament was left wide open.

Yet, there were no major surprises in the quarterfinal line-up barring the qualification of Lavanya, who made it to the knock-out phase as Amrita and two other players in her group gave the tournament a miss.

Billiards being the least sought cue sport discipline, the Nationals provides the only seriously competitive stage for women players to perform. Hence, the lack of exposure to billiards was evident in the way most of them performed. Decent breaks were rare and earning points on canons was the least preferred way for the most. No surprise then that the highest break of the tournament was 37, achieved once each by Anuja and her sister Meenal.

That remained the only achievement for the sisters from Maharashtra. Anuja will rue for the chances that she failed to capitalise on. Her early meeting with Uma Devi was her own making after she conspicuously lost to Chitra and finished second in her group. This was to make sure that Anuja and Meenal were drawn in different halves.

The plan backfired miserably. The Anuja-Uma quarterfinal turned out to be an entertaining duel in which the defending champion rallied from two games to level. In the decider, Anuja dropped several scoring chances and easy red pots just failed to come by. Uma Devi stuck around, took little extra time to gauge her shots, and emerged a worthy winner. In the semifinals, she confidently defeated T. V. Sri Devi 3-1.

In the top half, Chitra blanked Renu Bharkatiya in the quarterfinals, and then edged past Meenal, 3-1, in the semifinals to set up the summit clash with Uma Devi.

Woefully, at no point in the final, there was the thrill of being witness to a title clash. Both Chitra and Uma Devi applied the mantra of 'safety first' and turned the match into a grim battle.

Uma won the first game by a close margin despite having taken a commanding lead early on. Chitra drew level but, as both relied more on tactics than potting, luck came into play quite often.

"It was too much of a cat and mouse game," Chitra summed up the way final was played.

The results:

Final: R. Uma Devi (Kar) bt M. Chitra (Kar) 50-43, 42-50, 50-35, 51-21.

Play-off for third place: Meenal Thakur (Mah) bt T. V. Sri Devi (Kar) 50-29, 50-43.

Semifinals: Chitra bt Meenal 50-28, 37-50, 50-16, 51-34; Uma Devi bt Sri Devi 49-51, 51-38, 50-26, 50-23.

Quarterfinals: Chitra bt Renu Bharkatiya (MP) 51-23, 54-12, 50-40; Meenal bt Heena Khandelwal (Mah) 51-21, 50-17, 54-19; Uma Devi bt Anuja Thakur (Mah) 50-46, 50-29, 15-50, 38-50, 50-26; Sri Devi bt Lavanya (TN) 52-23, 51-40, 50-28.