A talented lass from Uzbekistan

AKGUL AMANMURADOVA towered above the competition during two weeks on the International Tennis Federation's Women's Circuit, winning back-to-back singles titles at the $25,000 Mumbai event and the $10,000 Pune tournament.

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

Akgul Amanmuradova celebrates after winning the Mumbai leg. She went on to win the Pune leg as well. — Pic. VIVEK BENRE-

AKGUL AMANMURADOVA towered above the competition during two weeks on the International Tennis Federation's Women's Circuit, winning back-to-back singles titles at the $25,000 Mumbai event and the $10,000 Pune tournament.

Hurling down aces with her 1.90m frame her ally, the Uzbekistan number two comes across as a no-nonsense achiever with a healthy respect for rivals, despite dominance over the two Indian finalists, Isha Lakhani and Megha Vakharia.

Humility is a rare commodity among successful performers. Akgul may be an exception owing to circumstances, which have thrust her on the ruthless road to professionalism. "Isha (Lakhani) and Megha (Vakharia) are talented and should be playing more frequently in Europe to develop an edge to their game. They need to get exposure for making an impact at higher levels,'' observed the huge Uzbeki after winning a battle of wits with the diminutive Megha — 7-5, 6-3 — in the Pune singles final at the Deccan Gymkhana.

Seven days earlier, she had blasted Isha off the court 6-3, 6-2 for the Mumbai title at the NSCI.

The champion remarked on the intensity of competition in Indian tennis, with four or five players of similar standard figuring in the ITF circuit events. She compared the situation here to the imbalance back home in Uzbekistan where she has only two serious challengers in the senior ranks. "Women's tennis in India is tougher, because you have four to five players challenging each other. Then there is Sania (Mirza) who made the breakthrough due to frequent exposure. You need sponsors to play in Europe, which she managed. If an Isha Lakhani or a Megha Vakharia were to get the same sponsorship support, they would have possibly made a mark in international tennis by now.''

The Uzbeki points to her own situation, where limited competition forces her to travel to ITF events for points necessary to get an entry into the Grand Slams. At the same time financial limitations are restricting her choice of competitions. "I chose to play in India or Asia because it is cheaper. I would have loved to go to Europe, travelling by road to events like the Russian girls do and rise to WTA levels in a short time, but cannot afford the costs,'' said the 20-year-old, now very much at home on Indian hard courts, making a phenomenal jump in rankings to 297 from 600 last year. She won the Mumbai leg title as the eighth-seed and the Pune event as number two.

Akgul has no personal sponsor and is totally dependent on the Uzbekistan Tennis Federation as a professional. "The federation pays for my tennis expenses and receives 50 per cent of the winnings in return. Though I decide which tournaments to take part in, I have to choose events where there is a good chance of picking up maximum points. If I cannot show results, the federation may think again when my contract comes up for renewal,'' she said.

The Uzbeki survived a torrid time against Megha in the Pune leg final, finding her power game neutralised by the clever Indian left-hander's mesmerising racquet skills and footwork.

Megha started off with a double fault, but did not waste time getting into rhythm, keeping the ball in play effortlessly and then turning on her classy touches to catch Akgul off guard. The small-made, compactly built Indian, showing form and flowing strokes, which helped her qualify for five ITF $10,000 finals this season, set off a buzz in the Deccan Gymkhana stands by getting into position for a stream of winners. The giant Uzbeki, forced into awkward positions on the baseline despite reach advantage, trailed 1-3 in both sets before hitting her way to victory, 10 aces tilting the balance.

Akgul helped herself to points gifted away by her cheeky rival, seven double-faults and volleying errors at crucial stages by Megha enabling the relieved Uzbeki to clinch her second title on the trot and making her one of the fastest improving players on the ITF list, recording a 300-plus improvement in rankings in a season. "I wish to move up to $25,000 and Challenger levels now after slogging it out in so many $10,000 tournaments,'' said the Uzbeki, ranked 398th prior to the Pune week. Megha, too, is on the lookout for sponsors to fuel her ambitions of getting specialised coaching and playing opportunities in the United States or Europe.

Hana Sromova (left) and Gabriela Navratilova, the doubles champions in the Mumbai leg. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

"After playing five ITF finals, it is time for Megha to aim high. Coach Janardhan at Juhu Vile Parle Gymkhana is helping her now, but she needs specialised training in the U.S. or Europe, maybe at the Bollettieri Academy, to make a mark'' said Dilip Vakharia, Megha's father, who's a businessman. The 19-year-old Megha had claimed Czech Republic second-seed Hana Sromova's scalp in the first leg.

"The MSLTA have been approached for more assistance,'' he said, dipping into his own pockets till a sponsor is spotted. The Mumbai left-hander, studying in MVLU College, happens to be one of the fortunate few to have a resourceful parent, leaving her comparatively free of money worries. For fellow Indian pros like Isha Lakhani, the first leg finalist at NSCI after being unseeded in the main draw, the situation is more difficult.

Isha stunned Sania Mirza in the quarterfinals to leave her mark on the $25,000 Mumbai week, displaying skills and tactical awareness of a high order. In a battle between touring partners, the unseeded left-hander won 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 in one hour, 26 minutes, consciously keeping the ball away from the hard-hitting seventh seed's ferocious forehand and reaped a harvest of points slanting returns across the net. "Sania is so good that I had to play really well to win,'' said Isha, leading 5-1 in the decider and winning after double-faulting six times, three more than her more visible rival. "I have played her so many times that this was just like any other match,'' remarked the Mumbai left-hander, now training under Hemant Bendre in Pune.

She played on her own in the first leg, upsetting top-seed Shiho Hisamatsu of Japan before being outclassed in a 57-minute final by Akgul.

The coach was at hand for the Pune leg, where his ward played through the week with a blistered foot and shivering with fever at noon, bowed out in the semifinal to the Uzbeki strongwoman.

Thassha Vitayaviroj (left) and Montinee Tangphong, the winners of the doubles title at Pune. -- Pic. AJAY DESHPANDE-

Sania, taking the Mumbai defeat in her stride, talked about the difficulties of facing Isha. "She is different from other left-handers I have faced. She did what was supposed to be done,'' said the Wimbledon girls doubles champion, for whom the defeat marked the end of an eventful 2003 season.

Sania, done in by mental fatigue in Mumbai, did not play the Pune leg after having exhausted the WTA stipulation of 10 senior events per season for juniors.

But she made a surprise appearance at Deccan Gymkhana as the guest of honour. "I believe in taking risks, winning and losing is part of tennis. Learning is more important. I learnt against Isha,'' said the hard-hitting Indian, looking ahead to a three-week coaching stint under Bob Brett in Italy, followed by European competitions. Mahesh Bhupathi's company, Globosport, organised the Bob Brett coaching arrangement and Bhupathi Senior will accompany Sania to Italy.

Archana Venkataraman, patient and persistent, upset the form book by wearing out top-seed Chin-Bee Khoo of Malaysia in a three-set marathon stretching to two hours, 29 minutes.

Teenagers Thassha Vitayaviroj and Montinee Tangphong were the other faces in the crowd, the tireless Thais teaming up to clinch the women's doubles title at Pune against the new Indian combination of Archana and Geeta Manohar. Rushmi Chakravarthi and Sai Jayalakshmy-Jairam, a regular pair on the women's circuit, finished runner-up at Mumbai.

The $25,000 Mumbai leg was sponsored and organised by the National Sports Club of India and the $10,000 Pune leg was sponsored by the National Egg Co-ordination Committee and organised by the Deccan Gymkhana.

Mumbai results: Singles final: 8-Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzbekistan) bt Isha Lakhani (India) 6-3, 6-2; Semifinals: 8-Akgul A (Uzb) bt 4-Gabriela Navratilova (Czech Republic) 6-3, 6-4; Isha, L (Ind) bt Montinee Tangphong (Thn) 6-3, 6-2. Doubles final: 1-Hana Sromova/Gabriela, N (Cze) bt 2-Rushmi Chakravathi/Sai Jayalakshmy-Jayaram (Ind) 6-1, 6-1; Semifinals: 1-Hana, S/Gabriela, N (Cze) bt 4-Sania Mirza (Ind)/Suchanan Viratprasert (Mal) 6-4, 7-6 (5); 2-Rushmi, C/Sai Jayalakshmy, J (Ind) bt 3-Akgul, A/Chin Bee Khoo (Mal) 7-5, 6-1.

Pune results: Singles final: 1-Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb) bt 6-Megha Vakharia (India) 7-5, 6-3; Semifinals: 1-Akgul, A (Uzb) bt 3-Karen Paterson (Great Britain) 6-2, 7-5; 6-Megha, V (Ind) bt Thassha Vitayaviroj (Thailand) 6-4, 6-4.Doubles final: Thassha, V/Montinee, T (Thn) bt Archana Venkataraman/Geeta Manohar (Ind) 4-6, 7-5, 6-4; Semifinals: Thassha, V/Montinee, T (Thn) bt Ankita Bhambri/Sonal Phadke (Ind) 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4; Archana, V/Geeta, M (Ind) bt Isha Lakhani/Liza Pereira (Ind) 5-7, 6-3, 6-3.