Abhinn and Aparna, yet again

IT was ecstasy for the reigning National champions Abhinn Shyam Gupta and Aparna Popat.

S. SABANAYAKAN

The PSPB contingent, which won the men's and women's team championships. Front row, from left: Aparna Popat, Jwala Gutta, Shruti Kurian and B. R. Meenakshi. Back row, from left: Abhinn Shyam Gupta, Chetan Anand, Jaseel P. Ismail, Dinesh Khanna (chief coach), Markose Bristow, Thomas Kurian, Pradeep Kumar Iyangar (manager) and Nikhil Kanetkar.-Pic: S. PATRONOBISH

IT was ecstasy for the reigning National champions Abhinn Shyam Gupta and Aparna Popat. It was agony and a long wait for another year for Chetan Anand and B. R. Meenakshi. And it was glory for the Petroleum Sports Control Board (PSPB) for sweeping all the medals at stake, both in the open and team championship, in the Indian Oil-sponsored 58th Inter-State and 67th Senior National badminton championship held at Guwahati.

The defending champions came through the tough final contests by the skin of their teeth. Third-seeded Abhinn lifted the men's singles title for the second successive year defeating top-seed Chetan Anand 15-13, 5-15, 15-13. The No. 3 seed Aparna had to dig deep into her experience to subdue top-seeded Meenakshi 11-3, 7-11, 13-10 for her sixth straight women's singles crown.

The last day's proceedings of the seven-day meet could not have been better. The final was a thrilling affair with fluctuating fortunes, great fightbacks, spectacular rallies and endurance of a very high order. The one who sustained the most of physical and mental strain emerged the champion.

The crack combination of Markose Bristow and Rupesh Kumar annexed the men's doubles title, staving off a stiff challenge from the third-seeded pair of Jaseel P. Ismail and Jaison Xavier 17-15, 15-3, while the unseeded pair of Ismail and Manjusha Kanwar took the mixed doubles title conquering Kerala's top-seeded team of V. Diju and Fathima Nazneen 11-7, 11-0. The women's doubles honours went to the highly ranked duo of Jwala Gutta and Shruti Kurian. The pair outplayed fourth-seeded Manjusha and Archana Deodhar 11-5, 11-1.

Talented and spectacular in his play, Anand outplayed his opponents in the run-up to the summit clash. Flowing movement, terrific control over the shuttle, keen game sense and above all super confidence marked his play. Till the final he was hardly extended beyond two games and he looked well set to clinch his maiden crown. But Abhinn, the Allahabad-based 24-year-old officer with Indian Oil, had other ideas.

Psychologically down after having lost four times at the PSPB inter-unit, Jamshedpur and Lucknow rankings and at the National Games to Anand in recent times, Abhinn was not sure of his second title. When he ultimately conquered Anand, he gushed out, "I cannot believe that I have won the second National title. After four losses to Chetan, my victory was incredible." The final clash lasted an hour and 16 minutes.

Anand's body language showed that he was as confident as he was in the previous rounds. And Abhinn was tentative to start with as the two began the first game. Dronacharya S. M. Arif had his own views after Anand's easy semifinal win over 16th-seed 19-year-old B. Com. student Anup Sridhar and Abhinn's come-from-behind victory over second-seeded 24-year-old Northern Railway head TTE, Sachin Ratti, in three tight games. "Chetan is the most talented youngster in the country. He has a very good game and deceptive wristy flicks. He should finish off the final in two games. Taking the match to third against Abhinn will spell real trouble."

How true his observation was! Anand, capable of playing a fast and attacking game, surprisingly indulged in too many rallies in the opening game allowing Abhinn to settle down and go one game up. If Anand had to take the title, the match had to spill over to the third game.

Anand blitzed through the second, attacking clear and with spectacular net dribbles, catching Abhinn off-guard many times. Anand began strongly leading 5-0 in the decider but lapsed into over-confidence as Abhinn caught him at 5-5 and 7-7 and from there on it was a battle of survival for both. Abhinn held his nerves making it 10-10 and adding to his stupendous retrieving an occasional smash to Anand's body. As Anand pulled abreast at 13-13, Abhinn took a gamble, setting the game at 15 with Anand holding service. Abhinn's confidence and self-belief enabled him to smash into Anand's body and take the service back. He then came up with a net dribble to jump to 14-13. And when Anand returned a smash wide, Abhinn jumped for joy. It was the right culmination of a brave display.

Aparna, possessing court craft of high order and stroke play matching international standards, held all the aces up her sleeve. Meenakshi, looking for her maiden crown, knew what exactly she had to do to stop Aparna from winning her sixth title. Meenakshi, a trainee of the BPL Academy, had the speed, stamina and power to match Aparna, a former BPL trainee and presently with SAI, Bangalore, under Ganguly Prasad. Aparna took the first game easily. Too easy an opening game seemed to have given Aparna a false sense of an easy kill and she paid for it in the next.

Aparna, slow even by Indian standards, failed to get her tosses right as most of them ended in the mid-court giving ample opportunity for Meenakshi to control the game and kill the loose ones. She raced to 9-0 and eventually won the game. With one-game all, Aparna was in a spot of bother against a fit and faster Meenakshi, who led 6-4 at the time of change of court and increased it to 9-5. When it looked like the women's singles was going to produce a new National champion, Aparna cut down on unforced errors and engaged Meenakshi in rallies. In a hurry to finish off the match, Meenakshi wasted three match points with poor play and lost a fine opportunity to win the contest.

There were many youngsters who impressed during the open events. Apart from Anup Sridhar of Karnataka, the future held good for junior National runner-up Bahniman Bora of Assam, Ravinder Singh of U.P. and current National junior champion Rohan Castelino of Karnataka. On the distaff side, current junior National champion Krishna Deka Raja of Assam, Aparna Balan of Kerala and B. Srilakshmi of AP should be heard more in future.

The Assam Badminton Association (ABA), which last hosted the National way back in 1972, could have conducted the most prestigious meet of the badminton calendar in a better manner. Players and officials complained about the way the two venues, Kanaklata Indoor Stadium in Guwahati and NFRSA Indoor Stadium in Maligaon, a good 25-minute drive from Guwahati, were spread out. Each venue had two courts but the Kanaklata courts, especially court No. 2, were not up to the standards. It had a wavy surface and the hova court needed constant attention throughout the championship. One day the matches were completed at 2-45 a.m. putting the players and officials under tremendous strain.

There was no catering arrangement whatsoever at the NFRSA Indoor Stadium. The transport system was poor. At the end of the day, many players had to avail themselves of the public transport to reach their hotels. The catering arrangement also left much room for criticism.

In all the ABA did not crown itself with glory with its lackadaisical approach towards the National. The Badminton Association of India (BAI) too failed in its duty to ensure proper playing conditions. It should have sent observes to verify the facilities at Guwahati before giving the go ahead signal. The ABA was awarded the National over Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra because 2002 was the 50th year of establishment of the Assam association. The golden jubilee National did not glitter as much as it should have.

The results:

Men singles final (seedings prefixed): 3-Abhinn Shyam Gupta (PSPB) bt 1-Chetan Anand (PSPB) 15-13, 5-15, 15-13. Semifinals: Anand bt 16-Anup Sridhar (Kar) 15-6, 15-4; Gupta bt 2-Sachin Ratti (Rly) 4-15, 15-3, 15-9. Quarterfinals: Anand bt 8-Sanave Thomas (Ker) 15-2, 15-1; Sridhar bt 5-J. B. S. Vidyadhar (Rly) 15-10, 15-9; Gupta bt 10-Nikhil Kanetkar (PSPB) 15-2, 15-1; Ratti bt Arup Baidya (Rly) 15-1, 15-8.

Doubles final: 1-Markose Bristow & Rupesh Kumar (PSPB) bt 3-Jaseel P. Ismail & Jaison Xavier (PSPB) 17-15, 15-3. Semifinals: Bristow & R. Kumar bt 4-J. B. S. Vidyadhar & Mitesh Hazarnis (Rly) 10-15, 15-8, 17-16; Ismail & Xavier bt 2-Sanave Thomas & V. Diju (Ker) 15-7, 15-11. Quarterfinals: Bristow & Kumar bt 8-P. Sunil & A. Pridhvi (AP) 15-6, 15-6; Vidyadhar & Hazarnis bt 5-Vijay Lancy & Anup Sridhar (PSPB) 15-6, 15-3; Ismail & Xavier bt 6-Ajit Wijetilak & Jose George (Kar) 9-15, 15-8, 15-5; S. Thomas & Diju bt K. Srinivas & Manoj Kumar (AP) 15-3, 15-1.

Women's singles final: 5-Aparna Popat (PSPB) bt 1-B. R. Meenakshi (PSPB) 11-3, 7-11, 13-10. Semifinals: Meenakshi bt 12-Fathima Nazneen (Ker) 11-0, 11-7; Aparna bt 2-Trupti Murgunde (Mah) 11-0, 11-4. Quarterfinals: Meenakshi bt Krishna Deka Raja (Asm) 11-9, 11-0; Fathima bt 8-Pooja Patil (Kar) 11-0, 11-5; Aparna bt 4-Shruti Kurian (PSPB) 11-4, 11-1; Trupti bt 6-Ch. Deepthi (PSPB) 11-7, 3-11, 11-1.

Doubles final: 1-Jwala Gutta & Shruti Kurian (PSPB) bt 4-Manjusha Kanwar & Archana Deodhar (PSPB) 11-5, 11-1. Semifinals: Jwala & Shruti bt 3-Ch. Deepthi & Fathima Nazneen (BAI) 11-3, 11-0; Manjusha & Archana bt 2-Oli Deka (Asm) & Trupti Murgunde (Mah) 4-11, 11-7, 11-3. Quarterfinals: Jwala & Shruti bt Aparna Balan & Dhanya Nair (BAI) 11-2, 11-3; Deepthi & Fathima bt 5-Palkan Nagori & Swati Chauhan (Rly) 11-1, 11-9; Manjusha & Archana bt 6-Barnali Raha & Tanmoyee Nandi (Rly) 11-4, 11-0; Oli & Trupti bt 7-Deepthi Priyadarshini & D. Swetha (AP) 11-2, 11-7.

Mixed doubles final: Jaseel P. Ismail & Manjusha Kanwar (PSPB) bt 1-V. Diju & Fathima Nazneen (Ker) 11-7, 11-0. Semifinals: Diju & Fathima bt P. Sunil & Deepthi Priyadarshini (AP) 11-3, 11-5; Ismail & Manjusha bt 2-Ajay Kanwar (Del) & Archana Deodhar (PSPB) 11-6, 11-6. Quarterfinals: Diju & Fathima bt Jose George & Pooja Patil (Kar) 11-3, 11-3; Sunil & Deepthi bt Nishad Dravid & Dhanya Nair (BAI) 5-11, 11-5, 11-5; Ismail & Manjusha bt B. Nagraj & Barnali Raha (Rly) 11-1, 11-6; Kanwar & Archana bt Mayur Ghatnekar & Sim Sim Salaria (Mah) 11-4, 11-5.

Team championship, men's final for the Rahimtoola Cup: PSPB bt Railways 3-0 (Abhinn Shyam Gupta bt J. B. S. Vidyadhar15-9, 15-0, Chetan P. Anand bt Arup Baidya 15-0, 15-0, Jaseel P. Ismail & Markose Bristow bt Vidyadhar & Mitesh Hazarnis 15-12, 15-8). Semifinals: PSPB bt UP 3-0 (Gupta bt Ravinder Singh 15-3, 15-3; Nikhil Kanetkar bt Utsav Mishra 15-4, 15-5; Anand & Thomas Kurian bt Sushant Saxena & Ravinder Singh 15-5, 15-1). Railways bt Kerala 3-1 (Sachin Ratti bt Rupesh Kumar 15-7, 15-0; Baidya bt Joy T. Antony 15-9, 15-10; Ratti & V. Diju lost to Rupesh Kumar & Jaison Xavier 10-15, 15-11, 10-15; Vidyadhar bt Sanave Thomas 10-15, 15-4, 15-10).

Women's final for the Chadha Cup: PSPB bt Maharashtra 2-0 (Aparna Popat bt Trupti Murgunde 11-8, 11-8; Jwala Gutta & Shruti Kurian bt Archana Deodhar & Sim Sim Salaria 13-10, 11-0). Semifinals: PSPB bt Assam 2-0 (Aparna bt Krishna Raja Deka 11-7, 11-2; Jwala & Shruti bt Oli Deka & Krishna Deka 11-9, 11-4). Maharashtra bt AP 2-0 (Trupti bt Deepthi Shalini 11-0, 11-0; Trupti & Archana bt D. Swetha & Deepthi Priyadarshini 11-5, 8-11, 11-7).