Bopanna strikes it rich

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

IN winning the singles and doubles titles in the $10,000 ITF Futures tennis tournament in Delhi, the 22-year-old Rohan Bopanna emphasised that he was making the strides to join the big league.

Rohan Bopanna in action in the final.-R. V. MOORTHY

He has been winning the doubles titles at this level, three of them to be precise in four weeks, but it was a sweet maiden title for Bopanna in singles.

Having lost two such finals to Prahlad Srinath last season, apart from the national hardcourt final to Vijay Kannan, Bopanna was obviously keyed up to make the maximum of the chance he had presented to himself.

He was a bit shaky, especially when he dropped serve with two successive double faults while serving for the championship in the tenth game of the second set against Dmitri Mazur of Uzbekistan, but regrouped himself to go for the jugular in the decider.

With his booming big serves, a strong physique, a patient backcourt game, considerable ability at the net and an impressive focus to capitalise on his strengths, Bopanna does offer hope for Indian tennis.

It was no wonder that the All India Tennis Association (AITA) announced total support for Bopanna, midway through the tournament, in terms of helping him to play more international tournaments around the world and get him the much needed coaching support.

Bopanna showed that he was a good student of the game as he grasped the points highlighted by Prahlad Srinath, who was put in charge of him and Sunil Kumar for two weeks. The Coorg lad sharpened his returns after Srinath told him that he was too passive in that department, and was thus putting too much pressure on his own serves.

The sixth-seeded Bopanna, ranked 590 in the ATP computer, had to beat a string of tough foreign players in his five rounds. Obviously, the fifth-seeded Mazur posed the best challenge with his ability to make the maximum of his limited strengths, that were better than a ranking of 546 would testify.

In fact, Bopanna had a test by fire when he wriggled out of the clutches of Febi Widhiyanto of Indonesia, ranked an unflattering 987, with a 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5) victory in the first round. However, Bopanna tuned his game so well that he was able to blast two Chinese qualifiers Yu-Jr Wang and Ben-Qiang Zhu for the loss of 11 games in all in the next two rounds.

Bopanna played solid tennis, despite being broken early in the semifinals against Meir Deri of Israel, who had beaten the champion of the earlier tournament in Chennai, the seventh-seeded Branislav Sekac of Slovakia.

For a tall man, Bopanna moves with ease. If he gets good training, as well as he has been guided by C. G. K. Bhupathi and to some extent Mahesh Bhupthi, there is no reason why Bopanna cannot jump into the 300-league in the near future.

It may be difficult to say as to where he can eventually reach, but there is no doubt that Bopanna has the best potential, and deserves everything that anyone interested in Indian tennis may have to offer.

"It really feels good to win this title. I have been working hard and this titles gives me a lot of confidence," said Bopanna, who was obviously thrilled to get the AITA support that would help him focus on his tennis, rather than worry whether he had enough money to play the next tournament.

Among the other Indians, Prahlad Srinath and Vishaal Uppal reached the quarterfinals. Srinath played fluent tennis in winning his first two rounds, but found the second-seeded Lee Childs that much marginally better. A bad call against him when he was leading 3-0 in the second set tie-break broke the rhythm of Srinath in his challenge against Childs, and he failed to win another point in that tie-break.

However, with his semifinal entry in Chennai and the effort in Delhi, Srinath was able to make another breakthrough entry into the Indian Davis Cup team for the Asia-Oceania Group 'I' tie against New Zealand.

The 28-year-old Srinath has been focussing on building his coaching career, despite good performances in the circuit last season, when he won back to back Futures singles titles.

It was perhaps one reason that forced the selectors to ignore his rightful claim for a spot in the Indian squad. But with Davis Cup reserve, national hardcourt champion Vijay Kannan touching a low in singles, as he lost to Punna Vishal in the qualifying event, it was decided to give a good option to the Davis Cup captain Ramesh Krishnan for the New Zealand tie.

It is not a bad idea to stick to experience, till youth explodes into the scene, demanding a place. Vijay did win two doubles titles from three finals with Bopanna, but unless he gets good singles wins, Vijay may find it difficult to convince the selectors about his candidature for the Indian squad.

Vishaal Uppal emphasised his attractive serve and volley game, with a lot of shrewdness thrown in, in good measure, into his backcourt play.

The 25-year-old Delhi lad, who had played a dream doubles match with Leander Paes at the same venue in getting a crucial win for Indian in the Davis Cup tie against Korea two seasons ago, made a good return to the professional circuit by making the quarterfinals in Chennai and Delhi.

In beating the third-seeded Mark Hilton and then David Sherwood of Britain, who had beaten him the earlier week, Vishaal showed that he had the game and the temperament to match the tough guys, if he put his mind on the job. He, however, could not put together a meaningful challenge against Mazur and lost a close encounter.

Shivang Mishra did well to get past the fourth-seeded Anton Kokurin of Uzbekistan, as the latter retired with a shoulder problem while trailing 6-7 (4-7), 2-3. The 19-year-old Shivang has been training and playing tournaments abroad, thanks to the single-minded devotion of his father, trying to develop his game. He has been able to add muscle to his serve, and may have to work on his groundstrokes a lot harder to make the breakthrough.

Bopanna and Vijay Kannan, the winners of the doubles title in the ITF Futures in Delhi.-R. V. MOORTHY

Manoj Mahadevan was the other Indian to ensure that he won at least one ATP point, as he beat qualifier Prima Simpatiaji of Indonesia 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 7-6 (7-1) in a hard-fought duel. Manoj gave a good account of himself before going down 5-7, 5-7 to Mazur.

Asian junior champion Sunil Kumar was unable to make a positive impression as he lost 3-6, 0-6 to Mazur in the first round. As Leander Paes quite rightly observed, it is going to be a tough season among the men for Sunil, and he may have to work doubly hard to ensure that he does not lose the confidence in his own ability to win matches.

National grasscourt champion Mustafa Ghouse lost in the first round to qualifier Yu-Jr Wang of China after winning the first set. Mustafa is another player who has the ability but does not have the conviction when he handles tight situations.

He had made the semifinals in Colombo, but was not able to build on that good run in the next two tournaments.

The Futures tournaments are getting a lot more tough these days, and that could be gleaned from the fact that only one Indian, Punna Vishal, qualified for the main event from a field of 57.

Four got in as wild cards and only four entered the draw on the strength of their ranking. Vinod Sridhar made it as a lucky-loser and ran into the wily Nitin Kirtane in the first round. Nitin was unable to match Ben-Qiang Zhu in the next round.

Quite admirably, the Indians lads have been working hard to meet the challenge from the growing foreign opposition.

When you look at the overall picture, you realise that it is not a bad achievement to win a $10,000 event, which offers 12 ATP points and $1300.

While the rest of the pack tries to get better in this league, Rohan Bopanna may have to train his sights on higher goals. For, the amicable young man with a tough attitude on court, is the best bet in Indian tennis right now.

The results :

Singles (final): Rohan Bopanna bt Dmitri Mazur (Uzb) 7-6 (7-5), 5-7, 6-4; Semifinals : Rohan Bopanna bt Meir Deri (Isr) 6-3, 7-6 (8-6); Dmitri Mazur bt Lee Childs (GBR) 6-4, 2-6, 6-2; Quarterfinals : Rohan Bopanna bt Ben-Qiang Zhu (Chn) 6-4, 6-2; Meir Deri bt Branislav Sekac (Svk) 6-2, 7-6 (7-5); Dmitri Mazur bt Vishaal Uppal 6-4, 6-4; Lee Childs bt Prahlad Srinath 6-4, 7-6 (7-3).

Doubles (final) : Rohan Bopanna and Vijay Kannan bt Sanchai Ratiwatana and Sonchat Ratiwatana (Tha) 6-3, 6-4; Semifinals : Rohan Bopanna and Vijay Kannan bt Yu Wang and Ben-Qiang Zhu (Chn) 6-3, 6-2; Sanchai Ratiwatana and Sonchat Ratiwatana bt Kamala Kannan and Vinod Sridhar 6-3, 6-1.