Double for Rushmi

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Rushmi Chakravarthi makes a forehand return in the final against Ankita Bhambri. — Pic. SUBIR ROY-

FOR her, tennis is serious business. She may have a very attractive game, especially on grass when she looks twice as good as she is on hardcourts, but Rushmi Chakravarthi rarely shows that she is enjoying her tennis, no matter whether she has just won a double crown, pocketing about $2000 in the process.

It was quite understandable when the Indian Oil officer from Chennai poured her feelings out when a TV commentator asked her as to why she had looked morose during the Fed Cup tennis tournament in the Capital.

On a stormy evening in Lucknow, during the $10,000 ITF women's tournament, when the `shamiana' and the back-screens of the courts had been either blown to shreds or smashed to the ground, Rushmi asked the commentator in reply, in a friendly conversation, as to how could she sport a happy demeanour when she was asked to play a match which nobody wanted to play, especially after she had been kept on the sidelines without a match till then.

Coming from the No. 1 player, it was a valid question, as Rushmi's image had been shattered in that match against Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand, one of the best players in Asia, as she could only eke out a solitary game, in the Fed Cup Asia-Oceania group `I' tournament.

Sometimes you do not fit into the scheme of things, and the captains weigh various aspects before deciding their plan of attack. As an individual, the urge is always there to prove that you are better than the rest, and that justice had not been done to you.

It was perhaps this feeling at the bottom of her heart, that pushed Rushmi to play some of her best tennis during the climax of the final when she eventually saved a matchpoint and subdued the second-seeded Ankita Bhambri, the new face of Indian women's tennis, 10-8 in the third set tie-break in the final at Lucknow.

Serving nicely, stroking with punch on either flank and mixing it up with delectable slice that teased all her opponents, Ankita in particular, Rushmi dropped only one set on way to the title, her sixth in singles at this level. Even that dropped set was an aberration as Rushmi suddenly switched off after having raced away with the first set. She won a mere three points as Ankita took the first five games of the second set. Eventually, Rushmi accelerated to a memorable finish, asserting her undisputed supremacy.

It was not just the victory over Ankita, a tough fighter who did struggle to put her game together on grass, as she had no clue as to how to play the backhand slice nor tackle it with confidence, but Rushmi played such a vibrant game that she did not give a game to Orawan Lamangthong of Thailand in the quarterfinals. It was for the first time in her international career that Rushmi blanked an opponent at such a level.

Rushmi and Ankita defeated Sai Jayalakshmy and Archana Venkataraman in straight sets for the doubles title. — Pic. SUBIR ROY-

Rushmi also showed how good she was as she beat Archana Venkataraman for the seventh time in as many meetings without ever giving more than four games in a set. She had earlier beaten Neha Rana and Samrita Sekar, conceding four games in all in the first two rounds.

In combining with Ankita, rather than playing with her regular partner Sai Jayalakshmy, following a mutual understanding, Rushmi also won the doubles title, dropping a mere 13 games in four rounds. It was the 17th doubles title at this level for Rushmi, one of the few Indians with an all-round game.

At 26, it is indeed difficult to keep one motivated, though there has never been a lack of initiative on the part of Rushmi to keep playing the circuit, not just in India, but in the rest of Asia, Australia and Europe. Had she not been injured in Surbiton last year, when she was at her best form, after having won a similar title on grass in Muzaffar Nagar, Rushmi could have improved on her record abroad, but as luck would have it, injuries have always chased her in a teasing fashion.

But for Rushmi coming in her way, the 17-year-old Ankita would have usurped the stage to announce her arrival in professional tennis. Of course, Ankita had shown her ability by qualifying for the main event of the $140,000 WTA Tour event earlier this season in Hyderabad. She had also played good tennis in winning three of her four singles matches in the Fed Cup. With Sania Mirza, Ankita had helped the Indian under-16 team reach the fifth position in the world in the junior Fed Cup.

Yet, there was a distinct improvement in her game, and perhaps her demeanour, as Ankita served big and stroked with composure, though she struggled to down players such as Liza Pereira and Sai Jayalakshmy in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively. Not taking anything away from the ability of Liza and Sai who can be tough to tackle on a given day when they play fluently, Ankita was troubled more by the surface than by the quality of her opposition.

"I expect her to rise to the next level, after the way she played in the Fed Cup," said the captain of the Indian Fed Cup team, Enrico Piperno, who had been pleasantly surprised to find that Ankita was his trump card.

For sure, Ankita will get to the next level in the near future, and it will do her morale a world of good if she can get that first title quickly. She had, of course, won two titles at the Masters in the Developmental $5000 circuit, but when compared to Sania Mirza's eight singles titles, seven of them abroad, in Asia, Europe, Africa and the US, Ankita does not have anything to show, though it can be argued that she has played far fewer tournaments than her friend from Hyderabad.

The absence of Isha Lakhani and Megha Vakharia, out with injuries, had taken some sheen off the tournament, but there is no doubt that the overall quality of Indian women's tennis is on the rise.

It may be too hot to play at your best, but the girls are not complaining generally, as they get to split $10,000 for a week's toil. Most of them use the money to play in more tournaments abroad, and there is more money that is getting invested in the game. Something good will come out of such a sincere exercise.

The Uttar Pradesh Tennis Association, that has conducted dozens of tournaments at the Oudh Gymkhana Club, showed that it could organise an international tournament efficiently, even without a sponsor.

The results:

Singles (final): Rushmi Chakravarthi bt Ankita Bhambri 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (10-8).

Semifinals: Rushmi Chakravarthi bt Archana Venkataraman 6-2, 6-4; Ankita Bhambri bt Sai Jayalakshmy 7-5, 2-6, 6-3.

Quarterfinals: Rushmi Chakravarthi bt Orawan Lamangthong (Tha) 6-0, 6-0; Archana Venkataraman bt Yi Chen (Tpe) 6-3, 6-2; Sai Jayalakshmy bt Nudnida Luangnam (Tha) 7-6 (7-3), 6-3; Ankita Bhambri bt Liza Pereira 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Doubles (final): Ankita Bhambri and Rushmi Chakravarthi bt Sai Jayalakshmy and Archana Venkataraman 6-4, 6-1.

Semifinals: Ankita Bhambri and Rushmi Chakravarthi bt Orawan Lamangthong and Varanya Vijuksanaboon (Tha) 6-2, 6-1; Sai Jayalakshmy and Archana Venkataraman bt Geeta Manohar and Liza Pereira 6-1, 7-5.