Enough incentive, nothing to show

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

INDIAN tennis missed yet another good opportunity to take a step towards the big league. The Asian Tennis Championship had served as the platform to launch the promising career of Sania Mirza last year, but the rest of the pack could not follow in her footsteps this time.

It has been a fairytale sequence for Sania so far this season, and the Australian Open wild card has been the biggest gift in her blossoming tennis career. She had actually missed the wild card by finishing runner-up to Na Li of China in the last edition of the Asian Championship in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, but the Chinese went on to make a direct entry, leaving the card in the safe hands of the 18-year-old Indian.

With players competing in the professional circuit all over the world week after week, the $100,000 Asian Championship in Tashkent, by itself, may not have meant much to professional players had it not been for the fact that the tournament champions get wild cards for the Australian Open. Thus, there was enough incentive for leading Indian players like Harsh Mankad, Prakash Amritraj and Shikha Uberoi to compete in the tournament and give themselves two chances to qualify for the first Grand Slam of the year.

While Harsh Mankad pulled out before the tournament to compete in the Challengers in Ukraine, Prakash Amritraj did not enter the field as he has reportedly been grappling with injuries. The women's No. 2 behind Sania, the US-based Shikha, had done well in the Federation Cup on her maiden appearance of the season, and a lot was expected of her. However, by keeping quiet till the draw was made on Sunday and conveying her non-availability after a round had been played, Shikha actually spoilt the draw and helped Ksenia Palkina of Kyrgyzstan make the quarterfinals without having to play a second round.

Of course, the authorities running the game in the country should have contacted Shikha in advance, to either convince her or confirm her availability for a tournament in which she was the No. 1 seed. With a ranking of 122, Shikha can possibly work harder in the rest of the season and make it directly to the Australian Open, but it was a good chance missed in any case to wrap up the place in the Australian Open and project India's strength in the region.

For someone who had waited for more than a year to get the approval from the ITF to represent India, Shikha did not show the enthusiasm to represent the country for the second time. Maybe, she can set the record straight in the Asian Games next year.

Going into the tournament, Rohan Bopanna was the best Indian player on view. He had made the singles semifinal of the Bukhara Challenger, beating the top seed on the way, and reached the doubles final there too. In the Asian Championship, though, he played in a hurry losing tamely to his doubles partner Alexey Kedriouk of Kazakhstan in the pre-quarterfinals.

Having been recalled to the Davis Cup squad, Bopanna was keen to showcase his ability and was perhaps too anxious in his attempt to blast past Kedriouk whom he had beaten in their previous meeting. A coach like Nandan Bal would have helped Bopanna handle the tournament better, as coach T. Chandrasekaran had done with the Indian team in the previous edition. The AITA needs to ensure that a competent coach travels with all the teams so that Indian tennis reaps better rewards.

Bopanna partially compensated for the singles disappointment by reaching the doubles final, and the Indo-Kazakh combination lost a cracker of a contest, 7-5 in the third set tie-break, against local lads Murad Inoyatov and Denis Istomin.

Bopanna had made it to the singles final in 2002 with a spell of brilliant tennis, before being conquered by Goichi Motomura of Japan. However, he said that reaching the doubles final this time was no comparison to the previous effort. "Winning the doubles title could have been something. Still, the Australian Open wild card is the single biggest thing in this championship," said Bopanna, who has been playing better after having returned from a shoulder injury, and has pushed his ranking to 309, close to his career-best 304.

Karan Rastogi and Vijay Kannan were the two other Indians in the fray. Vijay missed nearly half a dozen gamepoints in a couple of games after being up 4-2 against Motomura of Japan in the first set of the second round. He was outplayed thereafter by the crafty 32-year-old. Karan played a vibrant game as a lucky-loser, but found another Japanese, the third-seeded Satoshi Iwabuchi, too smart for his comfort in the second round. The 19-year-old Mumbai lad has beaten quality players like Simon Greul of Germany, Jamie Delgado of Britain, and the eventual Asian champion, Denis Istomin, but he needs to perform consistently through a tournament to start winning events, rather than be happy with the odd good win.

Karan and Vijay were denied an entry in the doubles semifinals with a bad call at 6-6 in the tie-break of the third set against Oleg Ogorodov and Vaja Uzakov of Uzbekistan. On matchpoint, the young Uzakov delivered an ace down the middle to complete the agony of the Indian pair, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (6).

Like the men, the Indian girls also lost in the pre-quarterfinals of the singles and put up a quality fare in the doubles. Ankita Bhambri was the best of the lot as she battled hard against the eventual champion Akgul Amanmuradova. After a nervous first set, Ankita played a solid second, holding serve with authority. She fired an ace on gamepoint in the tenth game, but Ankita eventually was broken in the 12th game. "She has improved a lot. I had beaten her 7-5 in the third set the last time and knew that she would be tough," said Amanmuradova.

Rushmi Chakravarthi and Sanaa Bhambri lost without much resistance to the sixth-seeded Ye-Ra Lee of Korea and the former Asian junior champion, fifth seed Chin-Wei Chan of Chinese Taipei.

Isha Lakhani was up against the former world No.16, the 23-year-old Iroda Tulyaganova, in the first round. However, a problem with her contact lens that forced her to sport spectacles just before the match did not help her cause and Isha failed to put up a great fight. The moral of the story: keep a spare pair of contact lens, even if it means spending money.

Tulyaganova was blasting winners and Isha, primarily because of her problem, was just not ready. Though the Uzbek tried to play as well as she had done in the past before an elbow injury brought her ranking down to the 300s, she was vulnerable, as was shown by Su-Wei Hsieh of Taipei in the semifinals.

In the doubles, Sanaa did not combine well with Ankita in the semifinals, and the pair went down after taking the first set against the eventual champions, the top-seeded Chin-Wei Chan and Su-Wei Hsieh of Chinese Taipei. Rushmi and Isha were equally good in taking the first set of their semifinals against the fourth-seeded Ye-Ra Lee and Mi Lyoo of Korea, but lost their way thereafter. Rushmi and Isha had done a good job of humbling the second-seeded Akgul Amanmuradova and Ivanna Israilova 1-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the first round.

That defeat perhaps paved the way for Amanmuradova's singles triumph as she was doubly determined to do justice to her ability, and give herself a chance to play in the big league.

It was a very creditable effort from the 21-year-old fourth seed to have got past tricky customers, the second-seeded Shiho Hisamatsu of Japan and Su-Wei Hsieh. Hisamatsu and Hsieh, who executed double-fisted strokes on either flanks, showed excellent court craft.

Like Amanmuradova, it was another local lad, Denis Istomin, 19, who won the men's event and got the ticket to the Australian Open. There was no doubting Isotmin's big serves, sharp groundstrokes and smooth mobility but he was gifted the match in the final by top-seeded Danai Udomchoke of Thailand. Udomchoke was denied the point and the fifth game when he hit a return winner on breakpoint in the second set. "Did you see the ball on that breakpoint. It was inside the line. That call upset my mind," said Udomchoke, who has to push his ranking a lot further from 136, even as he defends a clutch of points, to get a direct entry into the Australian Open.

Udomchoke reached the second round of Wimbledon as a qualifier this season and the Thai knew that he could make it after all, and thus was willing to fritter away the golden chance, as he went through the motions in losing 10 of the last 11 games. "The result is what matters," said Istomin, who did not sport a happy face for someone who had won a double crown. Of course, it was not Istomin's fault that his opponent switched off half way through a gripping contest.

It only goes to show that a lot more needs to be done to improve the championship. For, there is no doubt that the Australian Open wild cards are a big boost to Asian tennis. If you have any doubt, ask Sania Mirza.

The results

Men's Singles Final: Denis Istomin (Uzb) bt Danai Udomchoke (Tha) 4-6, 6-2, 6-1; Semifinals: Danai Udomchoke bt Satoshi Iwabuchi (Jpn) 6-3, 7-6 (3); Denis Istomin bt Goichi Motomura (Jpn) 6-4, 6-2; Quarterfinals: Danai Udomchoke bt Alexey Kedriouk (Kaz) 6-2, 6-4; Satoshi Iwabuchi bt Oh-Hee Kwon (Kor) 6-2, 6-1; Goichi Motomura bt Ti Chen (Tpe) 6-4, 6-4; Denis Istomin bt Mohammed Al Ghareeb (Kuw) 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-2.

Pre-quarterfinals (Indians only): Alexey Kedriouk bt Rohan Bopanna 6-2, 6-2; Satoshi Iwabuchi bt Karan Rastogi 6-3, 6-3; Goichi Motomura bt Vijay Kannan 7-5, 6-0; First round: Rohan Bopanna bt Tai-Wei Liu (Tpe) 6-3, 6-4; Karan Rastogi bt Murad Inoyatov (Uzb) 6-3, 6-2; Vijay Kannan bt Hiu Tung Yu (Hkg) 7-6 (9), 6-2.

Men's Doubles Final: Murad Inoyatov and Denis Istomin (Uzb) bt Alexey Kedriouk (Kaz) and Rohan Bopanna 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5); Semifinals: Alexey Kedriouk and Rohan Bopanna bt Oleg Ogorodov and Vaja Uzakov (Uzb) 7-6 (4), 6-3; Murad Inoyatov and Denis Istomin bt Kyu-Tae Im and Oh-Hee Kwon (Kor) 7-6 (4), 5-7, 7-5.

Women Singles Final: Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb) bt Su-Wei Hsieh (Tpe) 6-4, 3-6, 6-4; Semifinals: Su-Wei Hsieh bt Iroda Tulyaganova (Uzb) 6-4, 7-6 (6); Akgul Amanmuradova bt Shiho Hisamatsu (Jpn) 2-6, 6-1, 6-2; Quarterfinals: Iroda Tulyaganova bt Ksneia Palkina (Kgz) 6-4, 7-5; Su-Wei Hsieh bt Ye-Ra Lee (Kor) 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-4; Akgul Amanmuradova bt Wing Yau Venise Chan (Hkg) 6-1, 6-2; Shiho Hisamatsu bt Chin-Wei Chan (Tpe) 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Pre-quarterfinals (Indians only): Ye-Ra Lee bt Rushmi Chakravarthi 6-1, 6-4; Akgul Amanmuradova bt Ankita Bhambri 6-3, 7-5; Chin-Wei Chan bt Sanaa Bhambri 6-2, 6-3; First round: Iroda Tulyaganova bt Isha Lakhani 6-2, 6-3; Rushmi Chakravarthi bt Kim Loi Tran (Vie) 6-1, 6-1; Ankita Bhambri bt Tatyana Ignatchenko (Kaz) 6-1, 6-1; Sanaa Bhambri bt Mai Huynh Hyunh (Vie) 6-1, 6-0.

Women's Doubles Final: Chin-Wei Chan and Su-Wei Hsieh (Tpe) bt Ye-Ra Lee and Mi Lyoo (Kor) 7-5, 4-6, 6-1; Semifinals: Chin-Wei Chan and Su-Wei Hsieh bt Ankita Bhambri and Sanaa Bhambri 4-6, 6-2, 6-1; Ye-Ra Lee Mi Lyoo bt Rushmi Chakravarthi and Isha Lakhani 5-7, 6-3, 6-0.