A welcome addition

KALYAN ASHOK

A WELCOME addition to the Indian junior tennis circuit is the Nike Junior Tour for the under-12 and under-14 youngsters. It is this segment which considerably lacks good exposure and Nike, by initiating the tour, which comprises zonal events and a Masters championship, has opened new avenues for the Indian juniors. What's more, Nike also sponsored the winners of the Nike Masters event held at Bangalore from October 21 to 24 to Sun City, South Africa for the Nike Junior Tour International Masters championship scheduled to be held in November.

Winners all (l to r): Sriram Balaji, N. Jeevan, Sanaa Bhambri, V. Poojashree.-G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

The Nike Junior Tour was the vision of Chris Vermeen, the then sports marketing manager for Europe, who put it on the road in 1997. It was aimed to create junior tour for the young aspirants who had elements of excitement, passion and great competition. In a nutshell, it would teach youngsters what to expect on a senior tour. From a modest beginning in 1997, with just nine nations playing in NJT International Masters, the field has now expanded to 25 countries, including two new entrants Japan and India.

The lucky quartet from India, who booked their berths to South Africa, were Jeevan and Sriram Balaji of Tamil Nadu, Sanaa Bhambri of Delhi and V. Poojashree of Karnataka. After the end of four zonals held in Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, 36 youngsters converged on the Nike Bhupathi tennis village for the Masters event. Nike virtually rolled out a red carpet for the youngsters, they were put in five star hotels, provided with chauffeur driven cars and taken for sightseeing and to bowling alleys after the matches and as the tournament director, Krishna Bhupathi observed, "they were just pampered." Bhupathi justified the star treatment given to the kids. "The idea is to make them think, this is the kind of life I want to have through tennis and I better work for it," said Bhupathi. Krishna Bhupathi thinks big and his philosophy would have certainly rubbed on the juniors, who really had a ball out there at the Masters.

But the big prize, the ticket to Sun City, also proved to be big burden as the youngsters conscious of the make or break situation, struggled to come to terms with their game, especially in the final. Three of the four finals ended as whitewashes, but the redeeming show came from N. Jeevan of Tamil Nadu and Sanam K. Singh of Chandigarh, who contested under-14 boys singles final.

Jeevan certainly won a battle of nerves at 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 in 75 minutes, but not before going through a trouble phase in the match. He was great with his volleys and angled his returns to perfection, but he also suffered from bouts of self doubt, choking on crucial points and made double faults. Same was the case with Sanam, who was quick on his feet and hit solid ground strokes but also went through spells of inconsistency. Sanam's penchant to rush his streak also cost him some crucial points, which made difference to the outcome.

Sanam was quite impressive in the first set which he took easily, but with Jeevan fighting for every point, the going became rough for the top seed. The two struggled to hold their serves and broke each other at regular intervals, before Jeevan held his serve in the ninth game and broke Sanam decisively in the tenth game for the set. Fortunes fluctuated in the decider. After Jeevan ran up a 3-0 lead, Sanam equalised at 5 all. Jeevan, undeterred by the fightback, showed greater focus and broke Sanam in the 11th game and served out the match (7-5).

Earlier in the semi-finals, Jeevan made a short work of second seed Sumit Prakash Gupta 6-4, 6-3 while, Sanam D. Singh rallied to beat Mysore lad R. K. Praveen 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. It was a tale of missed chances for Praveen, who kept the rallies going, but lacked the finish.

In the under-12 boys section, Sriram Balaji of Tamil Nadu and Vikram Reddy of Andhra Pradesh were surely a cut above the rest. The two were the finalists at Nike's South Zone leg at Hyderabad and they clashed again in Bangalore, with Sriram Balaji blanking his rival at 6-0, 6-0.

V. Poojashree, similarly, was too good for the field in the under-12 section. The 12-year-old Mysore school girl was very consistent with her returns and that was an important attribute at this level of tennis. Poojashree, after beating Supriya Mallaya of Maharashtra 6-2, 6-0 in the semi-finals, blasted Prerna Mythri of Andhra Pradesh in the final at 6-0, 6-0. Poojashree, who won the under-14 title in the Nike's South Zone leg, however, pulled out of that section in the Masters.

Sanaa Bhambri is easily the best under-14 player in the country and the southpaw from Delhi, who is among the top 100 in the ITF World junior list, showed her class, by decimating the field without mercy. Sanaa, who is a member of the Indian under-14 junior team which finished seventh in World team event, drubbed the top seed, Sandri Gangori at 6-0, 6-0 in the semi-final and she maintained the same form in the final, where she outplayed Vandana Murali by the same margin (6-0, 6-0). Vandana did well against the fourth seed, Sandhya Nagaraj of Andhra Pradesh, in the semi-final, winning at 6-3, 6-4.

Nike's Tour format also ensured that the losers of each round continued to play consolation matches and the kids also played team contests, which were decided on games quotient.

The juniors were quick to catch on to the new concept and the big success of the Tour, should help Nike to make things better and bigger in the next edition.

The results (all finals):

Boys: Under-14 singles: N. Jeevan bt Sanam K. Singh 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, Under-12 singles: Sriram Balaji bt Vikram Reddy 6-0, 6-0.

Girls: Under-14 singles: Sanaa Bhambri bt Vandana Murali 6-0, 6-0. Under-12 singles: V. Poojashree bt Prerna Mythri 6-0, 6-0.