Aqeel Khan justifies top ranking

IT was nothing new for him to play in India. More than playing in India, Aqeel Khan had got used to playing the winning game. It was thus no surprise when the 24-year-old Pakistani lad won the men's singles title in the DSCL National tennis championship in New Delhi.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

IT was nothing new for him to play in India. More than playing in India, Aqeel Khan had got used to playing the winning game. It was thus no surprise when the 24-year-old Pakistani lad won the men's singles title in the DSCL National tennis championship in New Delhi.

Aqeel Khan, who dropped the first set against Vinod Sridhar, swung the final after 21 games to take the men's title. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

In these days, when the India-Pakistan sporting encounters are so nicely packaged in the media, it was a little different and a low profile affair, as the top-seeded Aqeel beat the second-seeded Vinod Sridhar in the final, in front of a 100-odd spectators at the DLTA Complex. Doordarshan was occupied with cricket coverage and thus there was no `live' or `recorded' coverage of the National championship.

It was not as if Aqeel needed to prove anything by winning the title. He had proved his worth quite impressively in the ten weeks of international circuit, in which he won the Satellite circuit back home in Pakistan and one Futures event in Hyderabad. He had also finished runner-up in the Indian Satellite circuit earlier, reaching up to 350 on the ATP ranking from nowhere.

By helping Pakistan beat New Zealand 3-2 in the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania tie, when he won the decisive fifth rubber in a five-set thriller against Simon Rea, Aqeel had established himself in Pakistan tennis, behind its numero uno, Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, who boasts of a top-200 ATP ranking.

Aqeel Khan, who dropped the first set against Vinod Sridhar, swung the final after 21 games to take the men's title. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

"This is very special. It is great to win the National championship in India as there are so many good players here'', said Aqeel, after the four-set triumph over Vinod in the final.

Things were not moving in his favour, but Aqeel swung the match around after 21 games, and the left-handed Vinod could not respond to the challenge as he was stricken by a muscle-pull near the left groin. Aqeel won 13 of the last 16 games to canter home to a prize purse of one lakh rupees.

The Pakistani had been given an invitation to compete in India and had been offered air fare and hospitality for the tournament. Though there was a debate as to the acceptability of a Pakistani winning the Indian National championship, it was a good move by the organisers as the annual event in itself was losing attention because the top Indian players were increasingly indifferent.

Ajay Ramaswami and Vinod Sridhar, the men's doubles champions. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

It was not a new phenomenon either, as Marcus Hilpert of Germany had won back to back titles in the National grasscourt championship a few years back.

It would be unfair to find fault with the top Indian players, as they have all been keeping themselves busy in the international circuit, quite content to allow fresh talent to use the platform at the national championship.

In the absence of Harsh Mankad, Prakash Amritraj, Sunil Kumar, Vijay Kannan, Rohan Bopanna, Vishaal Uppal, Mustafa Ghouse, Somdev Dev Varman, Punna Vishal, Prahlad Srinath and Jaco Mathew, it was left to the likes of Karan Rastogi to check the progress of Aqeel.

Sanaa Bhambri, the winner of the women's and girls' singles events. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

In fact, half of the 32 ATP ranked Indian players were missing from the action, while two of the six ATP ranked players from Pakistan were staking their claim in right earnest.

Karan did project a positive image in stretching Aqeel to his wit's end, but lacked the finesse of touch when it came to putting away the volleys on crucial points that robbed him the chance of a memorable win. Since he tends to rely on the pace generated by the opponent, the 18-year-old Karan was unable to probe the chinks in the armoury of Aqeel in the semifinals.

Ranked as high as No.4 in the junior world earlier in the season when he reached the singles semifinals of the Australian Open junior event, Karan will be out to make the transition into the men's league.

It was a similar case with Tushar Liberhan, who was unlucky to meet Karan in the quarterfinals. Tushar hesitated to attack the net when he led 4-1 in the first set tie-break, and Karan swung the match around with his dependable groundstrokes.

Nitin Kirtane was the usual wily war horse, as the former champion made it to the semifinals beating a couple of quality players like V. M. Ranjeet and the 17-year-old J. Vishnu Vardhan. He showed that the youngsters needed to tune their game a lot better and needed to develop strong weapons to shake a player of his calibre.

Left: Sanaa Bhambri and Isha Lakhani triumphed in the women's doubles. Below: Vivek Shokeen, the boys' champion. -- Pics. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

The fourth-seeded Ajay Ramaswami, the sixth-seeded Pathanjali Ravishankar, the seventh-seeded Ashutosh Singh and the eighth-seeded Sanam Singh were not able to make much headway. Among them, only the left-handed Ravishankar could reach the quarterfinals, while the other two lost in first round, but he too was unable to pose a serious challenge to Aqeel. The talented Ravishankar has been struggling to cope with the Indian conditions, in terms of the speed of the courts and the balls, and thus has not been able to play to potential.

In the women's section, it was Sanaa Bhambri all the way as the 16-year-old Delhi lass captured a triple crown, winning the singles and doubles titles in the women's event apart from the under-18 girls singles title.

In doing so, Sanaa repeated the efforts of Isha Lakhani who had accomplished a similar task of winning a triple crown in 2002.

In making the quarterfinals of the $25,000 and $10,000 ITF women's circuit tournaments at home recently, Sanaa had asserted her growing stature as a capable player.

Yet, it was a commendable fare from the student of Delhi Public School, that Sanaa was able to assert herself in winning the two singles titles, dropping only two sets along the way, one each to G. K. Shweta in the junior event, and to Sonal Phadke in the women's final.

"I am extremely happy. I wanted it to happen, but it was tough. I was down 0-2 in the third set of the women's final, but fought hard to crawl my way back. I had worked hard for this, and am looking forward to playing more women's tournaments'', said Sanaa, quite pleased about her achievement.

Rupesh Roy and Anshuman Dutta, who claimed the boys' doubles title. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

In the last edition, Sanaa had lost in the women's final to Ankita, and had won the doubles title with her.

"I have a few more tournaments left this season and would like to win a $10,000 title before the year runs out'', said Sanaa.

Getting into one of the Universities in the US may be an option, but at the moment Sanaa is keen to play in the professional circuit, especially in tournaments at home.

"I need to build up more strength. Need to work more on my serve and the net game'', said Sanaa who won 13 matches in the three events, and 11 of them on the last four days.

Sonal had done the hard work of beating the top-seeded Isha Lakhani, but lacked the conviction in her game to beat Sanaa in the final. It was the second final for Sonal after the doubles defeat, and it was for the second time she was losing the singles final, after having lost the first time to Isha two years ago.

The former National champion Radhika Tulpule made a successful return, but lacked the match fitness to tackle Isha in a three-setter in the quarterfinals. Sandhya Nagaraj showed her class by making the women's semifinals, but was unable to test Sanaa much.

G. K. Shweta and Preethi Subramaniam, the girls' doubles winners. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

In the girls event, Parul Goswami looked good, but lacked the patience and confidence to beat a player of the calibre of Sanaa in the final. It was a good effort by the much-improved Parul as she had made it to the women's quarterfinals as well.

Among the boys, it was a creditable effort from the second-seeded Vivek Shokeen to clinch the title in a draw of 64, beating the top-seeded Rupesh Roy in three sets in the final. Having won two ITF junior tournaments the previous two weeks in Mumbai and Gurgaon, Vivek was quite sharp and played with authority, serving big and stroking with confidence to win the honour.

Vivek was the only Indian to reach the semifinals in the men's Satellite circuit in Pakistan recently. It will be interesting to keep track of his progress. He was unlucky to run into Vinod Sridhar in the first round of the men's event.

Overall, the organisers did well to improve the profile of the tournament, with an offer of one lakh rupees for the men's winner and 80,000 rupees for the women's winner.

The results

Men's (final): Aqeel Khan (Pak) bt Vinod Sridhar 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1; Semifinals: Aqeel Khan bt Karan Rastogi 7-5, 1-6, 7-5; Vinod Sridhar bt Nitin Kirtane 6-3, 4-6, 6-1; Quarterfinals: Aqeel Khan bt Pathanjali Ravishankar 6-3, 6-4; Karan Rastogi bt Tushar Liberhan 7-6 (4), 6-2; Nitin Kirtane bt J. Vishnu Vardhan 6-4, 6-4; Vinod Sridhar bt Aditya Madkekar 6-2, 6-0.

Doubles (final): Ajay Ramaswami and Vinod Sridhar bt Kamala Kannan and V. M. Ranjeet 6-2, 6-2; Semifinals: Ajay Ramaswami and Vinod Sridhar bt Saurav Panja and Saurav Sukul 6-3, 6-1; Kamala Kannan and V. M. Ranjeet bt Nitin Kirtane and Pathanjali Ravishankar 2-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Women's (final): Sanaa Bhambri bt Sonal Phadke 6-3, 3-6, 6-4; Semifinals: Sonal Phadke bt Isha Lkhani 7-5, 7-5; Sanaa Bhambri bt Sandhya Nagaraj 6-1, 6-1; Quarterfinals: Isha Lakhani bt Radhika Tulpule 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-1; Sonal Phadke bt Parul Goswami 6-3, 2-6, 6-3; Sandhya Nagaraj bt Liza Pereira 7-5, 6-3; Sanaa Bhambri bt Sheethal Goutham 6-2, 6-1.

Doubles (final): Sanaa Bhambri and Isha Lakhani bt Liza Pereira and Sonal Phadke 7-6 (7), 6-1; Liza Pereira and Sonal Phadke bt Anupama Rajur and Chirashanthi Rajur 6-3, 6-1; Sanaa Bhambri and Isha Lakhani bt Vandana Murali and Sandhya Nagaraj 6-3, 6-3.

Boys (final): Vivek Shokeen bt Rupesh Roy 6-2, 3-6, 6-2; Semifinals: Rupesh Roy bt Rahil Makharia 6-2, 6-4; Vivek Shokeen bt Siddharth Gulati 6-0, 6-3; Quarterfinals: Rupesh Roy bt Ajay Ramaswami 6-3, 6-3; Rahil Makharia bt Alon Moses 6-3, 6-3; Siddharth Gulati bt Rohan Gide 6-3, 7-6 (3); Vivek Shokeen bt Agnel Gladwin 6-3, 6-0.

Doubles (final): Anshuman Dutta and Rupesh Roy bt Sumit Prakash Gupta and Tejasvi Rao 2-6, 6-1, 6-4; Semifinals: Anshuman Dutta and Rupesh Roy bt Vijay Sundar Prashant and Ajay Selvaraj 2-6, 6-2, 6-4; Sumit Prakash Gupta and Tejasvi Rao bt Siddharth Gulati and Vivek Shoken 6-4, 7-5.

Girls (final): Sanaa Bhambri bt Parul Goswami 7-5, 6-1; Semifinals: Sanaa Bhambri bt G. K. Shweta 6-3, 2-6, 6-0; Parul Goswami bt Preethi Subramaniam 3-6, 6-3, 6-3; Quarterfinals: Sanaa Bhambri bt Poojashree Venkatesh 6-1, 7-5; G. K. Shweta bt Vandana Murali 6-3, 3-6, 6-3; Parul Goswami bt Pooja Kommireddi 6-2, 2-0 (conceded); Preethi Subramaniam bt Shivika Burman 6-4, 6-4.

Doubles (final): G. K. Shweta and Preethi Subramaniam bt Ashmitha Easwaramurthi and Parija Maloo 6-2, 7-6 (3); Ashmitha Easwaramurthi and Parija Maloo bt Punam Reddy and Sandri Gangothri 2-6, 6-4, 7-5; G. K. Shweta and Preethi Subramaniam bt Shivika Burman and Poojashree Venkatesh 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.