Big gains for Amanmuradova

AKGUL AMANMURADOVA'S search for an identity among the International Tennis Federation's women professionals brought her to India for back-to-back $ 10,000 Futures events in Mumbai.

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

AKGUL AMANMURADOVA'S search for an identity among the International Tennis Federation's women professionals brought her to India for back-to-back $ 10,000 Futures events in Mumbai. The 19-year-old from Uzbekistan came prepared for the April heat and dust. "Last year in India playing for the first time, I didn't know what to do. Too many things were happening around me,'' said the 538th ranked player whose comparatively relaxed frame of mind this time was reflected in on-court performances.

Akgul Amanmuradova, winner of the singles event in the first leg, displays her trophy . — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

Four finals out of four is an exceptional achievement for a hulk of a girl who began entering in ITF events far away from hometown Tashkent just two years ago at 17, overcoming a mother's anxiety about her daughter's ability to travel alone on the circuit. Akgul won the singles and doubles in the first leg on the hardcourts of the Cricket Club of India. She collected 12 WTA points and $ 1925 prize money. The next ITF Futures week gained her two second place finishes on a trickier paint-on-cowdung Shivaji Park Gymkhana court, picking up eight points and $ 1175.

The dollars will go into the Uzbekistan Tennis Federation coffers as part of an arrangement with the 19-year-old in return for training support in Tashkent. The 20 circuit points and loads of confidence will come in handy when she plays the Fed Cup for Uzbekistan. "The ITF circuit is very difficult till you get ranked high enough to get a seeding. I cannot afford the cost of travelling and playing in Europe though tennis standards are high, so my federation sends me to India, which is cheaper though Asian tennis is tough.''

Akgul should know, having survived a three-setter stretching to two hours against India's Rushmi Chakravarthy before netting her first singles title at CCI. The doubles crown was won in the company of Malaysia's Chin-Bee Khoo. The next Futures week at Shivaji Park Gymkhana saw another Indian, Manisha Malhotra, quashing the fourth seeded Uzbeki's victory hopes with a ferocious display in the singles final. The Akgul-Khoo combo finished second best in the doubles final too, losing to Julia Vorobieva (Russia)/Ludmilla Rozsivalova (Czech Republic).

The most successful player in the first two ITF Women's Futures legs has a high regard for Asian tennis. "The Europeans came here, from Germany, Great Britain and United States, but couldn't do as well as the Malaysians, Thais or Indians who adjusted better to weather and court conditions,'' said this Uzbeki, who outlasted second seed Rushmi in the first final 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 but lost big points when it mattered in the latter stages of the second final against top seed Manisha Malhotra, losing 6-2, 4-6, 6-7 (10-12) after being overwhelmed by exhaustion.

Akgul has set no personal targets in terms of rankings, but hopes to imbibe composure on court displayed by Indian rivals. "This is how I am, no point in putting yourself under pressure by making ambitious claims. Of course, my federation expects me to play better and improve my rankings, even break into the top 200 but that is their plan,'' said the 19-year-old, adding: "I am impressed with the way Indians in particular react in match situations. Players like Rushmi (Chakravarthy), Sai (Jayalakshmy) are so focussed, the way they remain cool on big points when line calls or decisions go against them is something I want to do.''

The contrast in behaviour is striking, for an Uzbeki used to see tantrums on court. "In my country, even kids can be seen throwing racquets and shouting when decisions go against them,'' said the 19-year-old, whose behaviour on court and off-court relations with rivals is exemplary. Maybe due to education — she is studying international economic relations at the Tashkent University of Economics — maybe due to her genial nature. The only time this gentle giant blew a fuse, provoked by a spectator's untimely shout mid-way through the second leg final at SPG against a raging Manisha, she ended up as the losing finalist.

Manisha Malhotra with some awesome shots took the singles title of the second leg. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

The top seeded Indian exploded into aggressive strokeplay against the fourth seed from Uzbekistan, attacking at every opportunity to turn a first set loss into a glorious victory. Akgul crushed resistance with an iron hand to grab the first set 6-2 inside 25 minutes, despite feeling the effects of exhaustion and handicapped by a muscle injury to the right arm, affecting her serve. She was however taken aback by Manisha's fightback over the next two sets, unable to throw a ferocious rival off rhythm despite using all weapons and tactics.

For the first time in a fortnight, the 19-year-old was at the receiving end of audacious strokeplay. The Indian, making amends for the humiliation of a quarterfinal loss in the CCI leg, attacked every ball coming over the net and did it consistently enough to leave Akgul awkwardly placed at the baseline with a combination of deft returns, slick footwork and brutal strokeplay. Nine double-faults forced the fourth seed into tentative mode, her predicament made worse by inability to hit with power due to the injured arm.

Akgul's mobility and muscle were in place against in-form Rushmi Chakravarthy a week earlier at the CCI, setting the stage for an engrossing finale in an excellent tennis environment. Undeterred after losing the first set, the second seeded Indian upped her game to different levels thereafter. She aced big-serving Uzbeki six times, angling the ball out of reach and often rocked back to hit breathtaking forehands on the move. Eventually, the fourth seed produced a do-or-die effort to pull through in the decider, winning the final game at love after being frustrated in the ninth by Rushmi's success in saving three match-points.

Julia Vorobieva (left) and Ludmilla Rozsivalova, who won the doubles final of the second leg. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

The 19-year-old Tashkent resident, who prefers sliced backhand returns for control and swats winners from any part of the court, teamed up with stylish Malaysian Chin-Bee Khoo to clinch the doubles title, defeating the Indian pair of Rushmi Chakravarthy/Sai Jayalakshmy 6-2, 6-2. A week later the champion duo were involved in another doubles final, but this time bowed out against superior co-ordination from Ludmilla Rozsivalova (Czech Republic)/Julia Vorobieva (Russia) at the SPG.

The ITF $ 10,000 first leg was sponsored by Cricket Club of India and organised by Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association, the second leg sponsored by Mother's Recipe and conducted by SPG, in association with MSLTA. The playing facilities and scheduling at the first leg came in for appreciation from the players, Akgul making special mention of CCI organisation when pointing out shortfalls in the second leg, specially the SPG match courts where the ball skid through off the dusty surface at times, frustrating players' timing.

The results (Indians unless specified):

First leg : Women's Singles Final : 4-Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzbekistan) bt 2-Rushmi Chakravarthy 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. Semifinals : 4-Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb) bt 5-Chin-Bee Khoo (Malaysia) 7-5, 6-2; 2-Rushmi Chakravarthy bt 3-Sai Jayalakshmy 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.

Doubles Final : Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb)/Chin-Bee Khoo (Mal) bt Rushmi/Sai 6-2, 6-2. Semifinals : A.Amanmuradova/Khoo bt Manisha Malhotra/Radhika Tulpule 6-1, 6-3; Rushmi/Sai bt Yan-Hua Dong (China)/Po-Kuen Lam (Hong Kong) 6-3, 6-0.

Second leg : Women's Singles Final : 1-Manisha Malhotra bt 4-Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb) 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (10). Semifinals : 4-Manisha Malhotra bt Sai Jayalakshmy 6-4, 7-6 (4); 4-A. Amanmuradova bt 8-Wilowan Choptang (Thailand) 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.

Doubles Final : Ludmilla Rozsivalova (Czech Republic)/Julia Vorobieva (Russia) bt Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb)/Chin-Bee Khoo (Mal) 7-5, 7-5. Semifinals : Ludmilla.R (Cze)/Julia.V (Rus) bt Shruti Dhawan/Yael Gliztenshten (Israel) 6-4, 6-3; A. Amanmuradova/Khoo bt Orawan Lamangthong (Tha)/Geeta Manohar 7-5, 6-4.