A tournament sans fanfare

Three years into its existence, the Sunfeast Open, a $175,000 Tier III tournament, remains a minor halt in the Sony Ericsson WTA itinerary. That might or might not change, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

Mariya Koryttseva lasted longer than she ever had at a WTA tournament, but swooned before the finish and was unable to resist an in-form Maria Kirilenko. The 6-0, 6-2 loss in the Sunfeast Open final highlights the gap that exists in women’s tennis between the best players and average ones. Koryttseva succumbed to a combination of factors, nerves, a thigh strain, an unquestionably better opponent. But having played well above her level all week, the Ukrainian will dra w several positives from the week, not least of all, the news that she belongs to this level.

What transpired at the Netaji Indoor Stadium was certainly disappointing. Kirilenko won as expected. Her victory, completed in an hour and seven minutes, was even more one-sided than you may have anticipated. But Koryttseva had overcome several players ranked much higher than her, including the talented Vania King, who dumped top-seed Marion Bartoli in the first round and had stood a fair chance of making the semifinals herself.

The result, on the back of her win against Daniela Hantuchova in the semifinals, confirms the suspicion that Kirilenko has improved steadily over the past couple of seasons. This is her second career singles title, her first came two years ago in Beijing, and she rises to No. 29 in the WTA rankings. Earlier this year, Kirilenko beat Jelena Jankovic in San Diego and Marion Bartoli the following week. Her consistency in Kolkata, admittedly against average opposition, raises the hope that she might perform better in Tier I tournaments and make the second week at Slams with more frequency.

“It is good to play a final, anything can happen in a final. There is pressure, and I am learning to deal with that,” Kirilenko said afterwards.

Three years into its existence, the Sunfeast Open, a $175,000 Tier III WTA tournament, remains a minor halt in the Sony Ericsson WTA itinerary. That might or might not change; the men’s Chennai Open might not necessarily make a good model for comparison. This year, the tournament’s low profile wasn’t helped by the back trouble-related withdrawal of Alize Cornet, the 17-year-old sixth seed. The French girl had surged to a career-high world ranking of 68 following her third round foray at the US Open, where she took a set off Jelena Jankovic; she is one of the promising players for the future. Sania Mirza, still recovering from her wrist injury, followed her out.

A tournament like this usually attracts better players on the basis of word-of-mouth: the question players ask is, how well might the experience turn out? The draw in Kolkata featured three players in the top 30, eight in the top 100, but only a couple of them, barring a dangerous floater like Flavia Pennetta, really had a shot at the title.

Women’s tennis lacks depth. While it is the Slam matches that lower-ranked male players find draining, lesser women players and those on the rise, struggle to string together two sets — something that leads to multiple shifts in momentum.

Witness how quickly and consistently someone like Mirza finds her range against players ranked above her: invariably she comes out firing forehands and takes a substantial lead. But then — and this happens invariably — the errors pile up. She has broken into the top 30, but distressingly, still has some difficulty closing out lowly opponents.

Players like Dinara Safina and Kirilenko are a little closer to fulfilling their potential, than the Indian, but one suspects her time may come.

Kirilenko had fallen a set behind in her semifinal match against Daniela Hantuchova — a woman whom she had never beaten in their three previous encounters. But then she staged a comeback that was as emphatic as it was compelling. The Russian eventually overpowered Hantuchova’s sleek game in what was clearly the match of the tournament, with a steady barrage of outstanding winners, and won 4-6, 6-2, 6-1.

Such was the level of play that it was difficult to judge who might win, until the Slovak World No. 11 let up slightly and double-faulted to give Kirilenko a breakpoint for 5-1 in the third set, which was duly converted. Hantuchova was outplayed but far from overwhelmed, despite the seemingly skewed scoreline. She kept fighting almost until the finish, producing forehand winners down the line, alongside her favourite drop shots.

Every game in the first set went to deuce. Hantuchova was only able to convert one of her eight chances in the first set, but she was able to fully exploit that one lapse in Kirilenko’s concentration to forge ahead.

“I was a bit tired after 3-3 in the first set itself, we were playing so many points. But this was one of those matches when I thought I could come back,” Kirilenko said later. Her service rhythm settled in the second set, and she looked convincing whenever she moved up to the net; she kept up with the tactic for the rest of the match. The crosscourt forehand flick, Federer-style, wide off the net post, inflicted damage, winning a couple of huge points for Kirilenko.

Hantuchova was a little disappointed with how she served — she was broken five times in the match — but if it’s any consolation at all, Kirilenko was compelled to force the result.

In the other semifinal, Koryttseva and Anne Keothavong engaged each other in a scrap that lasted two sets and an hour and 46 minutes; it was hard to ascertain who was more tense of the two. The result — a 7-6 (3), 6-3 win for Koryttseva — was not pretty, and reflects little more than the truth that Keothavong’s forehand misfired on the day more often than Koryttseva’s. Semifinalists in a WTA event for the first time, both pottered around, wading deep into rallies only to make a hash of them with one false stroke.

This might have made for an interesting second-round match, but here, both were out of their depth, flapping for a gulp of air.

THE RESULTS SINGLES FINAL

Maria Kirilenko bt Mariya Koryttseva 6-0, 6-2.

SEMIFINALS

Maria Kirilenko bt Daniela Hantuchova 4-6, 6-2, 6-1; Mariya Koryttseva bt Anne Keothavong 7-6 (3), 6-3.

DOUBLES FINAL

Vania King & Alla Kudryavtseva bt Mariya Koryttseva & Alberta Brianti 6-1, 6-4.