A victory to savour for Sunil Kumar

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

FROM a promising kid to a professional tennis player, Sunil Kumar is making a steady transition. The 19-year-old Chandigarh lad clinched his maiden singles title in the men's professional world, in the ITF Futures tournament in New Delhi.

Coming as it did, eight months after his Asian junior title, the Futures crown was indeed a reaffirmation that the talented player was on the right track despite being considerably handicapped without a professional coach.

Sunil Kumar had a smooth sailing in the singles.-R. V. MOORTHY

Except for three or four Indian players like Rohan Bopanna, Mustafa Ghouse, Harsh Mankad and Vijay Kannan, the field was not that intimidating for Sunil, who had reached the final of a similar tournament a few weeks earlier in Canada.

It was a tailor-made situation for Sunil, trained by Paes en Sport, and he grabbed the chance with both hands by sailing through without dropping a set in the whole competition.

The fluency of his searing left-handed serves and the soundness of groundstrokes stood Sunil in good stead.

"We are not worried about his results at the moment. The idea is to ensure that he keeps improving his skill. Good results will follow," said Vece Paes who made it a point to watch the first couple of rounds.

In the final, Sunil was at his peak and handled the slender challenge from the national hardcourt champion, Vijay Kannan, with a rare degree of assurance. Vijay looked to have exhausted himself in taming the top-seeded Bopanna in the semifinals.

It was a tame end to a good tournament, but Sunil was not complaining as he savoured the fragrance of his first title triumph.

For someone ranked 744, it was a welcome title, in the light of the fact that Sunil did not have to face anyone ranked better than him other than the 699th ranked Vijay.

It, of course, did not take the sheen off his triumph that was termed "overdue" by the chairman of selectors, Shyam Minotra, who had reinstated Sunil in the Davis Cup squad, a day before the final.

Vijay had done the tougher job of beating the 432nd ranked Bopanna, who has been playing well in the circuit in Canada and the U.S., that had seen him garner 57 ATP points and be at the top among the Indians on the ATP computer.

That match between Vijay and Bopanna was delicately poised, till the latter made the exit, with poor serves in the tenth game of the decider when he was broken at love.

Bopanna had saved a setpoint with a rousing winner in the first set, but fell to another setpoint in the second with a bad shot. He undid all his good work with that haste in the climax, when discretion could have proved the better part of valour.

"Vijay played well, but I lacked the concentration. I thought of going with the momentum after the break in that ninth game, and it did not work out," said Bopanna, who was disappointed with the meek surrender of his doubles parnter in the final.

Vijay might have also been dispirited that he could not even win a reserve place in the Davis Cup squad, though it may be mentioned that the Southern Railway employee needs to play well a lot more consistently.

Mustafa Ghouse showed considerable fire in beating Harsh Mankad in a third set tie-break when he overcame moments of indecision and indiscretion, but the second seed was like a deflated balloon in the next round when he surrendered to Sonchat Ratiwatana.

Harsh has been in woeful form recently. He had managed a mere two ATP points from five tournaments in Canada and Europe. He came to India to get some matches, but found the going literally too hot to his comfort.

In the first round itself, Harsh was teased by qualifier and national junior champion Jaco T. Mathew. The latter failed to drive home the advantage and Harsh pulled through in the climax with the weight of his experience.

Being an intelligent young man who works on his game a lot harder than many others, Harsh should be able to get out of the rut soon. He, of course, has the confidence of his captain Ramesh Krishnan for the Davis Cup tie, and may still play against the Aussies in the World Group qualifying event.

Bopanna escaped the clutches of the young Rohan Gajjar in the pre-quarterfinal. The talented Gajjar failed to drive home the advantage when he was up 40-15 at 4-2 in the decider.

"I started thinking that I was going to beat the country's No.1. That perhaps unnerved me. I also got a few bad calls on crucial points," said Gajjar, the lanky young man who trains with Arjuna Awardee Sandeep Kirtane in Mumbai.

Among others, the third-seeded Nitin Kirtane went down in three sets in the first round to qualifier Moti Maaravi of Israel. Ajay Ramaswamy retired in the third set against Rishi Sridhar and the latter lost tamely in the next round to Stephen Nugent of Ireland, who had escaped the clutches of qualifier Amanjot Singh, surviving matchpoints in the process.

Shivang Mishra went down in three sets to South African Ciaran Moore in a third set tie-break. It was clear that Shivang lacked concentration.

In doubles, Harsh and Ajay compensated for their disappointing singles show by winning the title, fighting hard, round after round. The duo beat the top-seeded Bopanna and Vijay Kannan in the second round, and needed another three-setter to down the third-seeded Mustafa Ghouse and Sunil.

In comparison, Gajjar and Mathew combined well to make the final, from a relatively easy bottom half. With better guidance, players like Rohan Gajjar and Jaco Mathew are bound to shine a lot better in the future.

In fact, Indian tennis needs a few professional coaches who have the commitment for the cause of the country.

It remains to be seen how well the national association and the individual players address the need to train in a professional way.

With Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi reaching close to four figures in singles ranking, there is an urgent need for the likes of Rohan Bopanna, Sunil Kumar, Harsh Mankad, Mustafa Ghouse and Vijay Kannan, among others, to tighten their game for a good jump up the ranking ladder.

The results:

Singles (final): Sunil Kumar bt Vijay Kannan 6-3, 7-6 (7-4); Semifinals: Vijay Kannan bt Rohan Bopanna 5-7, 6-4, 6-4; Sunil Kumar bt Sonchat Ratiwatana (Tha) 6-3, 6-4; Quarterfinals: Rohan Bopanna bt Eliran Dooyev (Isr) 6-2, 6-1; Vijay Kannan bt Stephen Nugent (Irl) 6-4, 6-0; Sunil Kumar bt Ciaran Moore (RSA) 6-4, 6-2; Sonchat Ratiwatana bt Mutafa Ghouse 6-4, 7-6 (7-3); Pre-quarterfinals: Rohan Bopanna bt Rohan Gajjar 3-6, 6-1, 6-4; Eliran Dooyev bt Roy Sichel (Isr) 2-6, 6-4, 6-0; Vijay Kannan bt Ishay Hadash (Isr) 6-1, 6-0; Stephen Nugent bt Rishi Sridhar 7-6 (7-5), 6-0; Sunil Kumar bt Attapol Rithiwattanapong (Tha) 6-4, 6-4; Ciaran Moore bt Moti Maaravi 6-2, 6-3; Sonchat Ratiwatana bt Bhee Witoonpanich (Tha) 6-4, 6-3; Mustafa Ghouse bt Harsh Mankad 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4).

Doubles (final): Harsh Mankad and Ajay Ramaswami bt Rohan Gajjar and Jaco T. Mathew 6-4, 6-4; Semifinals: Harsh and Ajay bt Mustafa Ghouse and Sunil Kumar 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-5); Rohan Gajjar and Jaco Mathew bt Sanchai Ratiwatana and Sonchat Ratiwatana 6-2, 6-3; Quarterfinals: Harsh and Ajay bt Rohan Bopanna and Vijay Kannan 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (6-8), 6-4; Mustafa and Sunil bt Roy Sichel and Dekel Valtzer (Isr) 6-4, 6-0; Rohan Gajjar and Jaco Mathew bt Eliran Dooyev and Asaf Drori (Isr) 6-3, 2-6, 6-4; Sanchai and Sonchat bt Sean Cooper and Stephen Nugent (Irl) 6-1, 6-4.