Charge of the young brigade

Sanam Singh-SANDEEP SAXENA

In the tough world of men's tennis, two youngsters, Karan Rastogi and Sanam Singh, have shown immense promise, which augurs well for India, writes KAMESH SRINIVASAN

WHILE Sania Mirza was in the spotlight in 2005, two young boys quietly gained their foothold in the tough world of men, raising hopes of a bright future for Indian tennis. Karan Rastogi and Sanam Singh have shown that they are capable of breaking into the Top-100, if not straightaway threatening Leander Paes' best ranking of No.73.

Karan, 19, of Mumbai recently gave notice to the national selectors as he beat Davis Cup players Rohan Bopanna and Harsh Mankad in the semifinals and final of the ABN-AMRO Challenge. The effort not only fetched him an impressive prize of $4,500 but also a wild card for the qualifying event of the ATP tournament in Rotterdam, which is regarded as the best indoor event in the world.

Karan had won the Challenge from an eight-member field in 2004 too and gained his ticket to Rotterdam, but the difference was that he came through a far superior field this time.

Karan Rastogi-VINO JOHN

In fact, Karan proved that he had come of age in the professional world when he won the four-week Satellite Circuit in Gurgaon and New Delhi. By winning 21 of his last 31 singles matches in the second half of the year, he has made sure that the All India Tennis Association (AITA) and the national selectors would take him seriously when they sit down to pick the Indian team for the Davis Cup tie against South Korea in February.

Considering that Prakash Amritraj has not been in top form in the last six months owing to injuries, and that Harsh Mankad has won just nine of his 25 matches in the Challenger Circuit during the same period, one definitely cannot discount Karan's chances.

Bopanna, no doubt, has a 21-14 win-loss record from July to December, having made the semifinals of a Challenger in Uzbekistan apart from few other semifinals in Futures both at home and in Australia. Though he lost the National Championship final on grass to Vishaal Uppal, Bopanna's chances of retaining his place in the Indian team appears bright thanks to his memorable performance against Thomas Johansson of Sweden in the Davis Cup World Group play-off tie in September.

Rohan Bopanna-V.V.KRISHNAN

Bopanna missed two big chances in his career. A player blessed with a big game, good enough to take him to the Top-50 in the estimation of coach Bob Brett, the 25-year-old Coorgi missed his first big chance when he let the Australian Open wild card slip by, losing in the final of the Asian Championship in 2001 after playing extremely well to get there. The next time, he missed the wild card for the Chennai Open that was almost within his grasp at the National Championship (grass court) recently. It won't be easy turning the clock back.

Players like Karan Rastogi and Sanam Singh know very well that they have to capitalise on the chances that come their way. And they have been delivering heartening results that augur well for their future. In a season when Sanam Singh was struggling with a wrist injury that kept him away from the game for 12 weeks, after he had won the Asian junior championship in Seoul, the 17-year-old Chandigarh lad has done well to be the youngest Indian winner of the ITF Futures event. He made the quarterfinals of two Futures tournaments last year, but winning the title was indeed a big step forward. He lost just 20 games in five rounds to assert his class and authority.

Not many Indian players strike the ball as superbly as Sanam does on both sides. And despite his small frame, he has a big serve. He moves about the court with energy and has the ability to read an opponent's game clearly. He has the game that should take him far.

Sanam will be focusing on the Grand Slam junior events this year. He has the potential to win the titles there — both the singles and the doubles in partnership with Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan. And should that happen, it would provide his career a further boost and put him on the right track to progress. Like Karan, Sanam also practices at the Nick Bollettieri Centre in Florida, honing his fitness and skills. Sanam is relatively better off than Karan as he, along with Vivek Shokeen and Jeevan, is supported by the AITA for all his tennis needs. However, there is an urgent need for a high calibre coach who could take the boys forward in the tough world of men's tennis. Right now Gajendra Singh, the development officer, is doubling up as the coach and has done his bit quite well. There is no doubt that any investment on these youngsters would be worth it.

Vishaal Uppal-SANDEEP SAXENA

As Karan and Sanam captured our attention with their smart deeds, Vishaal Uppal, 29, took everybody by surprise by winning the national grass court title. The GAIL employee, who had helped Leander win a crucial doubles rubber against South Korea on the same court at the R. K. Khanna Stadium in New Delhi, displayed a fine understanding of the nuances of playing on the natural surface.

Vishaal has been enjoying his tennis of late and more importantly he has been able to stay focussed on the court. There is a lesson to be learnt here for youngsters like Karan and Sanam. If they can remain focussed on the court as well as Vishaal does these days, they could do very well for themselves, for age is on their side.

Hope springs eternal in human breast. The future of Indian tennis looks bright.