Anastasia is top of the pops after Sania no show

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

She came, she saw, but she did not conquer: Sania Mirza disappointed in Kolkata, losing in the second round of the singles.-AP

THE label said a lot about the content. The Sunfeast Open was an appropriate name for the $1,70,000 Women's Tennis Association tour event, which laid out the grandest treat of top quality women's tennis seen in the country till date. Kolkata, with its rich sporting culture, was a befitting venue for the Tier-III event, making its debut in the eastern metropolis. With the relentless monsoons taking a break during the week, the city witnessed a sunny fiesta on court in which a host of names from the top hundred players of the world, including a few celebrities, were seen in action.

One such celebrity, top seeded Anastasia Myskina of Russia, was crowned at the end of a week replete with action and drama. The tournament followed a script laced with feats, failures, excitement and crisis. In the end, heroine Myskina claimed the crown after her repeated failures of this season. Her success extended into the doubles event as well as she teamed up with her friend and compatriot, Elena Likhovtseva, to complete the Russian domination of the event. The power, precision and temperament of the former World No. 2 set her apart from the rest of the competition.

The focus initially was on the biggest attraction of the tournament, Sania Mirza. Never in the long history of the sport in the country has there been a name as formidable as hers to evoke the collective aspiration of a nation. The Indian teenager, already noted by the WTA for her fast upward mobility in the rankings in the year, was tipped by the public to rule the event based on her incredible run during the season which helped her set many Indian records. Her third round entry at the Australian Open in January was the first in the list of surprises before she won her maiden WTA title in Hyderabad to power into the top 50 of the rankings. The latest in the sequence was her fourth round entry at the US Open and the subsequent rise to the 34th position. The mounting list of her accomplishments built up the crescendo even as Sania arrived in the city for the event as the third seed. Everyone expected an encore of her Hyderabad triumph.

Being the focus of such unprecedented attention brought the ills along with it. Sania was the target of some Muslim hardliners, who raised eyebrows on her tennis attire. As a result, the teenage icon was forced into a security cocoon during the tournament with grim men in black surrounding her. Though she never uttered a word about anything except tennis, Sania was under tremendous pressure. Her practice schedule was hampered as the securitymen seemed to have more say than her newly appointed coach John Harrington. These happenings appeared to have cast a shadow on her performance as Sania crashed out in the second round losing to an opponent — Hungarian Melinda Czink — placed 87 ranks below her. Mirza's second round exit was shocking as she began the tournament on a bright note. Her game in the first round was marked by aggression and power, and it was up to the expectation of a big audience, which almost blew down the roof of the refurbished stadium with its raucous support as Sania blew away qualifier Junri Namigata of Japan 6-2, 6-2.

The city now wanted to see more of India's tennis idol. Sania started the second round with authority winning the first set 6-0. Then came the sudden twist in the tale as the Indian's hegemony was broken by the resolve of the Hungarian. Melinda Czink forced a spectacular comeback and won the next two sets 6-4, 6-4 to turn the tables on Sania, whose serve came under the hammer in the last two sets as Czink broke her six times, four of them in the decider. Sania's first serve percentage and the quality of her second serves need urgent attention. The Indian accepted her defeat sportingly saying, "It was not my day."

Sania's defeat took the fizz out of the tournament, and the familiar scenes of half empty stands returned for the rest of the event. It was strange why people did not return to see the other world stars in action. Sania's early exit was somewhat redeemed by her Federation Cup teammate, Shikha Uberoi, in the second round. The New Jersey-based Indian, upset eighth-seeded and 93-ranked Rika Fujiwara of Japan 6-2, 6-3 after she had summarily dismissed Fujiwara's compatriot Ryoko Fuda 6-1, 6-3 in the first round. Having crossed the foothills confidently, Uberoi was up against a mountain in the next round as she came up against top seeded Myskina.

The Indian had no answers to the superior craft and composure of the Russian. Myskina won in straight sets but the Indian did not give in without a fight. She wrested a break from the Russian to level scores in the second set. But the quality of Myskina's returns and the depth in her groundstrokes were so good that Uberoi failed to hold serve in the fourth and eighth games. "She has got power but she rushed the net too often trying for winners," was how Myskina analysed Uberoi's game after the match.

Four more Indian names — Shikha's sister Neha Uberoi, Sunitha Rao, Ankita Bhambri and Rushmi Chakravarthi — were in the fray in the tournament. The Indian-Americans, Neha and Sunitha Rao, attracted much attention. Despite carrying the tag of the country of their residence, both have harboured desires of making it to the team of their origin. It was no surprise when the first round match between them was the cynosure. The two matched strength and skills to extend the match to the decider, at the end of which the ranking hierarchy was preserved as the 161-ranked Sunitha defeated the 248-ranked wild card Neha 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.

In the second round, Rushmi ran into second seeded Russian Elena Likhovtseva. The Russian, ranked No. 16 in the world, played true to her form and came up with scorching double-handed returns putting Sunitha under severe pressure. Sunitha won some good points on both flanks in the second set but could not put together enough of them to trouble the Russian.

Ankita Bhambri and Rushmi Chakravarthi had a short stay in the elite round. Young Ankita, ranked 522, met the 172-ranked Kaia Kanepi in the first round. The Indian fought hard to put her Estonian opponent under tremendous pressure. The first set was decided in the tie-break. Kanepi won it 7-6 (7-5) and she annexed the second set 6-2 as the Indian looked battle weary. Ankita can take heart from her brave resistance as the unseeded Kanepi became one of the revelations of the tournament and reached the semifinals. Chakravarthi too fell in the first round, losing to the fourth seeded Italian, Camerin.

In the semifinal, Kanepi had a taste of what Shikha had gone through earlier in the tournament. Myskina sent her packing 6-3, 6-1. The Russian produced a flurry of winners with either hand and on all flanks. Under the onslaught, Kanepi's game disintegrated into an error-ridden one to make it an easy match for Myskina. In the other semifinal, seventh seeded Croatian Karolina Sprem unfurled a delectable mix of agility and finesse to power past second seeded Likhovtseva. Ranked 17 last year, Sprem was laid low by a viral infection. She had fallen to 85 before coming to the Sunfeast Open. She is picking up the pieces again if her 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over the Russian favourite is indication.

The final was Sprem's third appearance in a WTA title round and she must have hoped that it would be her lucky day because she had failed in the first two instances. However, Myskina put an end to all such illusions by raising her game. The Russian, facing the aggression of a motivated opponent, kept her clam and fine-tuned her returns. The top seed demolished the seventh seed 6-2, 6-2.

The summit clash produced an exhibition of quality tennis and clever court craft. Sprem worked on her power and kept her returns deep and wide. But Myskina changed her game accordingly altering the angles and trajectory of her returns to keep Sprem guessing. "I lost to a better opponent. Anastasia was playing too well. I hope I never come up against her in a final in future," Sprem complimented her conqueror. In a match of fluctuating fortunes, Neha and Shikha Uberoi prevailed over Melinda Czink and Yuliana Fedak 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 6-3 to enter the doubles final. The sisters displayed fine understanding and court craft when it mattered. The other doubles semifinals saw the India-Spain combination of Sania Mirza and Virginia Ruano Pascual falling to the top seeded pair of Myskina and Likhovtseva in a late night encounter. The No. 1 doubles player in the world, Pascual, was a special invitee on a wild card to partner the Indian sensation. The two played well progressing to the semifinal but fell short on understanding while playing against two old friends from Russia. The finals reinstated the supremacy of the top seeds. The hard earned win in the semifinal stood them in good stead against the Uberoi sisters as they routed the siblings 6-1, 6-0 to claim the title.

The Results (Singles): Final: Anastasia Myskina (Rus) bt. Karolina Sprem (Cro) 6-2, 6-2; Semifinals: Anatasia Myskina bt. Kaia Kanepi (Est) 6-3, 6-1; Karolina Sprem bt. Elena Likhovtseva (Rus) 4-6, 6-4, 6-1; Quarterfinals: Anastasia Myskina bt. Shikha Uberoi (Ind) 6-4, 6-2; Kaia Kanepi bt. Sybille Bammer (Aut) 7-5, 6-3; Karolina Sprem bt. Melinda Czink (Hun) 6-3, 6-1; Elena Likhovtseva bt. Sofia Arvidsson (Swe) 6-1, 7-5;

Doubles: Final: Anastasia Myskina & Elena Likhovtseva (Rus) bt Shikha Uberoi (Ind) & Neha Uberoi (USA) 6-1, 6-0;

Semifinals: Anastasia Myskina & Elena Likhovtseva bt. Sania Mirza (Ind) & Virginia Ruano Pascual (Esp) 4-6, 6-3, 7-5; Neha & Shikha Uberoi bt. Melinda Czink (Hun) & Yuliana Fedak 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 6-3.