Foreigners dominate proceedings

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

Tzipi Obziler of Israel, in action during the final in Mumbai.-VIVEK BENDRE

TZIPI OBZILER is a quiet achiever on the tennis court, a silent killer of ambitions to be precise. The 29-year-old Israeli kept a low profile throughout a frenzied week in Mumbai during the $25000 MSLTA International Tennis Federation's Women Circuit event, but made accumulating points and winning matches appear so simple that all eyes were on her in the final stages.

She was ranked as high as 140 at one stage but a two-year forced layoff from the game due to a shoulder injury resulted in Tzipi sliding to 188 in the WTA rankings. The top seed, who is a member of Israel's Fed Cup squad, was in full flow and her skill surfaced on the deco-turf courts in Mumbai when she was pushed to work for her points.

A smooth mover and an effortless volleyer, gliding towards the ball without expending too much physical energy, the Israeli, ranked No. 2 in her country behind Anna Smashnova, brings a minimal approach to the business of winning tennis matches against the grunters and moaners. The $25,000 prize money tag attracted a quality field. The first six seeds in the singles main draw were ranked below 300 in the WTA ratings, which resulted in fiercely contested matches right from the opening rounds, keeping the chair umpires in `alert' mode.

Fourth seeded Dominika Luzarova, a relentless retriever, forced the Israeli to raise the level of her game in the semifinals, which went into the decider. Tzipi responded by beating the Czech at her own game. "I knew she would make me work hard for every point. I was prepared to put in that extra load on my body," Tzipi said after winning 6-3, 4-6, 6-1. The top seed brushed aside Germany's Adriana Barna, seeded number three, 6-2, 6-2 in the final with another clinical effort.

Quizzed about her recent tennis achievements, she referred to a three-setter against Lindsay Davenport in a Fed Cup tie and a runner-up place in a $50,000 event in the United States as her career highs. Clearly, the two years lost due to a troublesome shoulder have forced a re-working of priorities. Now the focus is on staying healthy at 29 when scampering up the WTA ladder crowded with powerful teenagers.

Obziler (left) and Katarina Daskovic, the doubles winners.-VIVEK BENDRE

Luzarova, who kept returning till her opponent dropped off due to exhaustion, banked on her amazing endurance to play long matches from the pre-quarterfinal stage. A three-hour marathon with wildcard Sania Mirza brought out the best from both the contestants. Beginning late in the afternoon, this duel between Luzarova, whose strength lay in her returns, and Sania an all-out attacker, went on to become a classic. Roles interchanged as the tie extended to the decider. The floodlights were switched on before the fourth seed won 7-6 (7), 5-7, 7-5 for a place in the quarterfinals.

Sania came out stronger despite the loss, trading five shots per point on an average over two hours and 45 minutes against a more experienced rival. "It was a tough match. She did not even look tired. I have to improve my endurance level," noted the 16-year-old Indian, exhausted but happy to have actually found out the extent to which she could stretch her reserves against seniors. The confidence gained from three back-to-back ITF victories coming into this event reflected in her proactive approach.

Coach S. Narendranath, working with Sania at Hyderabad since the youngster moved to the C.G.K. Bhupathi fold, may have experienced extreme emotions watching from the stands. Tzipi opted out of any observations on the 16-year-old, reasoning she had not watched enough, but the Indian is already a marked girl.

Kateryna Bondarenko, a qualifier capable of stretching the champion Tzipi to three sets in the first round at Mumbai, came good the next week when the ITF caravan moved to Pune for a $10,000 tournament at the Deccan Gymkhana. The surface was decoturf once again and the climate was cooler. More Indians joined in with Rushmi Chakravarthi (388) occupying the top spot in the seedings list, followed by Austria's Jennifer Schmidt (489) in second place among eight seeds in the main draw.

Rankings and reputations didn't bother Kateryna, a Ukrainian junior ranked in world's top 40 this season, pushing her luck in the senior circuit. Eventually, the Pune meet turned out to be more than profitable for this 16-year-old as she grabbed both the singles and doubles titles (partnering Uzbekistan's Akgul Amanmuradova). Her ambition is to emulate elder sister Alona, a top-200 seniors player, besides fulfilling aspirations of a tennis-crazy family — even her grandfather plays the game.

Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine, who won the singles title, also bagged the doubles, partnering Uzbekistan's Akgul Amanmuradova (below), at Pune.-AJAY DESHPANDE

Kateryna's court presence will make her more than welcome on the circuit in the years to come. She has the strokes and a tennis mind, using angled returns to set up points. She can serve well when in rhythm and is not afraid to air emotions openly. Added to it is her collection of colourful tennis outfits showing off her athletic frame, which cannot escape the attention of television cameras, fans and sponsors.

The Ukrainian lass is hungry for success, never mind the means. She served underarm in three matches to avoid recurring double-faults, a family trick as she admitted through interpreter Amanmuradova (her doubles partner). "I have served underarm on matchpoint once before. The idea is to surprise your opponent shaping up for the bounce. I began doing this after watching my sister Valerie do it frequently in matches," said Kateryna. She added that she was working on other improvisations to keep her rivals on tenterhooks.

The Indians were not so enterprising, even with the advantage of familiar surface and conditions. Top seed Rushmi Chakravarthi went out in the first round to Radhika Tulpule, who fell at the next stage to Kateryna. Sixth seed Sania was beaten by second seed Jennifer Schmidt in the quarterfinals, the 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3) scoreline an indication of the Austrian's ups and downs.

AJAY DESHPANDE

Eventually, Ipek Senoglu survived to challenge Kateryna in the final, but an old shoulder problem forced the fifth seed from Turkey to bow out in 48 minutes.

Radhika Tulpule and Sania Mirza finished runners-up in the women's doubles, India's only finalists over two ITF events, pocketing four WTA points and $175 each. The $25000 Mumbai event was sponsored and organised by the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association, while the Pune leg was sponsored by National Egg Co-ordination Committee and organised by the Deccan Gymkhana. Tzipi Obziler emerged the highest earner (50 pts, $3600) of the fortnight, followed by Kateryna (10 pts, $1925).

The results:

Mumbai leg singles final: 1-Tzipi Obziler (Isr) bt 3-Adriana Barna (Ger) 6-2, 6-2. Points/winnings: 25 WTA points/3000 dollars; 17/$1700.

Doubles final: Obziler/ Katarina Draskovic (Yug) bt Scarlett Werner (Ger)/Shelley Stephens (NZ) 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. Points/winnings: 25/$600 each; 17/$350 each.

Pune leg singles final: Kateryna Bondarenko (Ukr) bt 5-Ipek Senoglu (Tur) 6-1, 6-1. Points/winnings: 5/$1600; 4/$1000.

Doubles final: K. Bondarenko (Ukr)/ Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb) bt Sania Mirza/Radhika Tulpule 6-3, 7-6 (1). Points/winnings: 5/$325 each; 4/$175 each.