Aisam has an easy passage to the trophy

HE was on a high. Winning a singles title in Thailand, though at the fag end of the season, had given Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan, a lot of confidence to tackle the Futures circuit in India.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi (left) being congratulated by runner-up Nicky Crawley. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

HE was on a high. Winning a singles title in Thailand, though at the fag end of the season, had given Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan, a lot of confidence to tackle the Futures circuit in India.

A long wet spell in the Doon valley, when the main draw was delayed did not dampen the Pakistani, as he roared into action against the talented Melvyn Op Der Heijde of the Netherlands.

In a close encounter that stretched to three sets, the third-seeded Aisam played the big points like a champion, particularly in the climax, to emerge a 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 7-5 winner. There was no doubt then that it would take some effort to derail the Pakistani from his campaign of winning his second title on the trot.

To his credit, the serve and volley specialist, with an all-round game, Aisam maintained the tempo after that tough start and did not drop a set thereafter, in winning his next four matches on way to the title.

"I had played most of them before, and I was confident of my chances. I am happy with the way I played and look forward to finishing the season with a good ranking'', said the 23-year-old Aisam, after dismissing qualifier Nicky Crawley of Britain 6-1, 7-5 in the final.

The final could have been a fitting climax to a memorable tournament, but for the Briton squandering a set point in the tenth game of the second set on the Pakistani's serve. To be fair, Crawley played well within his limitations, especially for someone who had not crossed the quarterfinals earlier.

Saying that he was focussed towards meeting his goal of breaking into the top-100, the 489th ranked Aisam said that he was getting back his form of yore, after having lost five months to an abdomen surgery.

"It is my goal to make it to the top 100 in singles. I had been 78 in doubles, and know that I have the game to reach my goal'', said Aisam, who had enjoyed a ranking in the top-200 in singles, before sliding down the ladder.

"The courts were fast here, and that suited my game'', said the Pakistani, even as he praised the fine organisation by the Uttaranchal Tennis Association, at the Doon School Complex.

Aisam played a solid game in taming the work-horse, Dmitri Mazur of Uzbekistan in the semifinals, after playing the crucial points nicely against the young challenger, the 17-year-old Tushar Liberhan in the quarterfinals.

Mustafa Ghouse gave a good fight to the Pakistani in the pre-quarterfinals, but could not take his chances as he went down 4-6, 6-7 (3-7), perhaps because he was a bit low on confidence, having lost to the same opponent the previous week.

Ajay Ramaswami (left) and Sunil Kumar in action in the doubles final, in which they beat Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal . — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

While Aisam's path to the trophy was well expected, it was a surprise that the 1050th ranked Nicky Crawley was able to win six matches, including two in the qualifying event, to make it to the final.

Capitalising on a weak bottom half of the draw, that had five qualifiers, two lucky-losers in place of the second and fourth seeds, apart from three wild cards, Crawley dropped only 14 games in his first three rounds in the main draw, in beating Ritesh Chitlangiya, Vaja Uzakov of Uzbekistan and Yaroslav Sorokin of Ukraine in that order. He was given a run for his money by Punna Vishal in the semifinals.

However, the Indian qualifier who had played an energetic game in overcoming Naim Lalji of Britain in straight sets, saving five breakpoints in the second set, Punna lacked the confidence to build on a good start.

Punna was perhaps drained of energy after the tough three-setters against Karan Rastogi and Sergei Krotiouk of Russia in the first two matches. Overall, he gave a good account of himself in making his maiden semifinal, while the more fancied compatriots had failed to reach that far.

To be honest, once the top-seeded Harsh Mankad fell to Dmitri Mazur in three sets in the pre-quarterfinals, 6-1, 2-6, 3-6, there was little hope for the Indians. It was left to Tushar Liberhan to project a better image of the Indian youngsters, as the 17-year-old won three rounds in the qualifying event and two more in the main draw, before losing to the eventual champion in the quarterfinals.

The way the 17-year-old Tushar played the fifth-seeded Matwe Middelkooop of the Netherlands in the pre-quarterfinals, dismissing the Dutch 6-3, 6-1 with a near flawless game, it was clear that the young lad was learning his game fast, despite being busy in the ITF junior circuit.

It was a stop-gap arrangement for Tushar to play the qualifying event in Dehra Dun, before he was packed away by the National Tennis Academy (NTA) for two ITF junior tournaments in Malaysia. The boy did make the maximum of his stay in the Doon valley, to the extent that he was tempted to eye the next event in Delhi.

A clutch of other Indian aspirants, Vishaal Uppal, Vinod Sridhar, Manoj Mahadevan fell in the second round, while the likes of Sunil Kumar, Ajay Ramaswami, Vijay Kannan, Karan Rastogi and Somdev Dev Varman failed to win a round.

There was some compensation for the Indians in the doubles event, as it was an all-Indian affair in the final.

The second-seeded Ajay Ramaswami and Sunil Kumar, fresh from a title triumph in Thailand, played a sharp game with intensity to run away with the trophy, beating the top-seeded Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal, the Asian Games bronze medallists, in a rather resounding fashion, 6-2, 6-1 in the final.

The top-seeds had wriggled past the third-seeded Manoj Mahadevan and Kamala Kannan, who had won a Satellite in China, in two tie-breaks in the semifinals.

It was the fourth title as a pair for Ajay and Sunil, and the third of the season, with the first having come in Tunisia. For Ajay, it was his 10th doubles title at this level, as he had won three with Prahlad Srinath, two with Harsh Mankad and one with Mustafa Ghouse.

The young lads R. Arun Prakash and Divij Sharan who had won the Osaka super juniors doubles title, on a par with the Grand Slams, in Japan, earlier in the season, went down with guns blazing, 7-6 (9-7), 6-7 (7-9), 4-6 to the fourth-seeded Dutch Matwe Middlekoop and Melvyn Op Der Heijde in the first round.

Yet, there is no doubt that the Indian players, juniors and seniors alike, would love to do a lot better in singles.

It was a maiden venture for the organisers to host an event of such magnitude. With only three courts at the main venue, there was considerable constraint, especially when rain played havoc with the programme, but the organisers rose to the occasion to make the event a memorable success.

The courts at the Indian Military Academy (IMA) and the Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy (IGNFA) came handy, especially for completing the qualifying event, and served as practice courts.

The Governor of Uttaranchal, Mr. Sudarshan Agarwal, was the chief guest and gave away the prizes.

The results:

Singles (final): Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi (Pak) bt Nicky Crawley (GBR) 6-1, 7-5.

Semifinals: Aisam Qureshi bt Dmitri Mazur (Uzb) 6-4, 6-4; Nicky Crawley bt Punna Vishal 4-6, 6-0, 6-4.

Quarterfinals: Dmitri Mazur bt Mikhail Ledovskikh (Rus) 6-2, 6-3; Aisam Qureshi bt Tushar Liberhan 6-3, 6-4; Punna Vishal bt Naim Lalji (GBR) 6-3, 7-5; Nicky Crawley bt Yaroslav Sorokin (Ukr) 6-1, 6-4.

Doubles (final): Ajay Ramaswami and Sunil Kumar bt Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal 6-2, 6-1.

Semifinals: Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal bt Kamala Kannan and Manoj Mahadevan 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (8-6); Ajay Ramaswami and Sunil Kumar bt Vijay Kannan and Vinod Sridhar 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.