Aisam defies all odds

Hoping to win a few rounds, Aisam stuck to his plan of playing the tournament in Delhi. It was a decision that paid rich dividends, as the handsome Pakistani sailed through to the title, collecting 18 precious ATP points, with his big serves and decisive volleys.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

THERE was some suspense even after the matches had finished on the opening day of the $10,000 ITF Futures men's tennis tournament in the Capital. For, there was no trace of the second-seeded Pakistani, Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi.

Pakistan's Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi in action during the final. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

There was some hope that the talented 23-year-old Pakistani would turn up the next day, as most of the first round matches had been scheduled for the second day.

Aisam did appear that Tuesday, after having landed in the Capital past 7 p.m. the previous day, and had to dig deep into his reserves to save five set points in his 6-1, 7-6 (13-11) victory over wildcard entrant Ashutosh Singh in the first round. He later revealed that he was scheduled to arrive the previous Friday itself, to gain the much-needed practise, as he had none to practice with back home.

As misfortune would have it, Aisam was down by food-poisoning and had to spend time in the hospital rather than on the tennis court.

Hoping to win a few rounds, Aisam stuck to his plan of playing the tournament in Delhi. It was a decision that paid rich dividends, as the handsome Pakistani sailed through to the title, collecting 18 precious ATP points, with his big serves and decisive volleys.

Twice he had to bounce back after being a set down, and Aisam did so in style and with a fair degree of conviction in the semifinals against Alexey Kedriouk of Kazakhstan and against qualifier Sarvar Ikramov of Uzbekistan earlier in the second round.

Having seen the Pakistani right from the time he had played the first Futures tournament on Indian soil in Chandigarh in January 1999, one was sure that it would be difficult for anyone to beat him at this level. Except for fatigue catching up with him after three successive titles in Thailand, Dehra Dun and Delhi last season, when he lost to Somdev Dev Varman in Mumbai, it has been rare in recent months that Aisam has faced defeat in India.

After another splendid final when he turned the match around after being 2-4 down in the second set against the top-seeded Todor Enev of Bulgaria, to be home in straight sets, Aisam thanked the Almighty for giving him the strength to win his ninth Futures singles title, despite not being in his best form.

Mustafa Ghouse (left) goes for a backhand return, watched by Vishaal Uppal in the doubles final. The Indian duo won in straight sets. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

"The good thing was that I was serving very well," said Aisam, after delivering a dozen aces in the final. The crucial factor was that the Pakistani served strong on the big points.

He was quick to talk about going to the U.S. for three weeks of training and get ready for the Davis Cup tie against Chinese Taipei, as he had planned originally.

"You have a 17-2 record against Japan, and you have Leander, who is unbeatable in Davis Cup," said Aisam when told about the toughness of the tie for India in Osaka in April.

Well, it has been a dream for the sports followers in the sub-continent to draw combined India-Pakistan teams in cricket, and imagine them overpowering the best teams in the world. In the same breath, it will not be a bad idea to think about having a combined tennis team with Aisam in the squad, and dream about the team making it to the World group.

To be honest, the second string Indian players have not been able to show any consistency over the years to support Leander and Mahesh Bhupathi in national duty. In fact, the likes of Harsh Mankad, Rohan Bopanna, Prakash Amritraj, Sunil Kumar and Vinod Sridhar have won fewer international singles titles than what Aisam has done in the last five years.

Of course, Harsh was busy in tournaments abroad, Prakash was still nursing a quadricep injury and Bopanna was just returning from a bicep injury, that had kept him out of action for about two months.

Bopanna, who had captured everyone's imagination with his five-set battle against the French Open finalist Martin Verkerk in the World Group qualifying round against the Dutch in Holland, looked to be playing well, but was rusty in his quarterfinals against Kedriouk.

It was quite all right that Bopanna was taking his time to get into his rhythm rather than hurry into his best form. For, he would need to play a significant role in the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania second round tie against the Japanese.

It was no surprise that Bopanna was the only Indian to make the quarterfinals in singles. Sunil Kumar had lost in the pre-quarterfinals to Orest Tereshchuk of Ukraine in three sets. Tereshchuk had earlier overcome Vinod Sridhar in the third set tie-break.

Ajay Ramaswami and Nitin Kirtane had done well to qualify into the main draw and marched ahead into the second round as well, beating Punna Vishal and Karim Maamoun of Egypt respectively. However, Ajay fell to Febi Widhiyanto of Indonesia and Nitin did not have any answer to the steady-play of left-hander Xin-Yuan Yu of China.

Tushar Liberhan showed that he was learning the ropes well, as he beat Mustafa Ghouse with a steady baseline game, but he found Bopanna too hot to handle. If players such as Tushar Liberhan, or for that matter, the world No. 5 ranked junior, Karan Rastogi, can add punch to their strokes and fire to their serves, it will not be too much of a problem for them to make an impact at the senior level, on a regular basis.

Jaco Mathew was another Indian who qualified from a tough 64-draw but he went down in three sets to Patrick Schmolzer of Austria in the first round.

There was some cheer for the Indian camp only in the doubles, as the Asian Games bronze medallists, Vishaal Uppal and Mustafa Ghouse, clinched the title with a quality fare, beating Tereshchuk and Kedriouk in the final.

It was the seventh doubles title for Ghouse in 13 finals, while it was the sixth title for Uppal in 13 finals, at the Futures level.

If the Indian lads work diligently on their game the way they do in doubles, and play with a little more self-belief, there is no reason why they cannot do what an Aisam Qureshi does with such amazing consistency — win titles on Indian soil.

The results:

Singles (final): Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi (Pak) bt Todor Enev (Bul) 6-3, 6-4.

Semifinals: Todor Enev bt Orest Tereshchuk (Ukr) 1-6, 6-3, 6-3; Aisam Qureshi bt Alexey Kedriouk (Kaz) 6-7 (2-7), 6-4, 6-4.

Quarterfinals: Todor Enev bt Febi Widhiyanto (Ina) 6-1, 6-2; Orest Tereshchuk bt Filip Urban (Pol) 7-5, 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-5); Alexey Kedriouk bt Rohan Bopanna 6-3, 6-3; Aisam Qureshi t Xin-Yuan Yu (Chn) 7-6 (7-3), 6-4.

Doubles (final): Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal bt Alexey Kedriouk (Kaz) and Orest Tereshchuk (Ukr) 7-6 (7-4), 6-4.

Semifinals: Alexey Kedriouk and Orest Tereshchuk bt Murad Inoyatov and Dmitri Mazur (Uzb) 6-3, 7-5; Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal bt Prima Simpatiaji and Febi Widhiyanto (Ina) 6-4, 7-5.