Harsh Mankad takes a significant step forward

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

Harsh Mankad shows his class . — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

HARSH MANKAD is an interesting case study about optimising tennis potential. The 24-year-old Indian Davis Cupper is proving that appearance hardly matters in the international circuit, if you have the ability to keep a tennis ball in play for long stretches and have the intelligence to project your strengths. The singles title at the International Tennis Federation's Men's Futures, Mumbai leg, is a small, though significant step forward in gaining respect from peers and credibility from promoters.

Coming into the third week of the $10,000 event as No. 2, behind Rohan Bopanna, in the men's draw, Harsh showed guts and ground strokes to hold his own, following Bopanna's first round exit. Displaying a typically baseliner's endurance and patience, the second seed's astonishing ability to serve aces over five matches en route to the final showed how lack of muscle or inches can be managed with basic grasp of body dynamics.

The little champion, weighing 64 kilos and standing five feet-nine inches, views serve as a weapon of surprise. "I am looking at unsettling the receiver with variations," said the Davis Cupper, looking to improve on the second serve after developing a sharp first serve. "It is physics. I have a small window if I go for power and pace, due to my height. So I have to aim for accuracy and placement."

His ace is a cleanly struck curve ball, which deceives the rivals. "I am looking to put my opponent off balance, so that I can then move and take charge," observed the Indian, already armed with a potent return of serve.

After mastering Mustafa Ghouse in the quarterfinals, extending to three sets, he survived three hours against Ajay Ramaswami in the semifinal, before qualifying for his second final in consecutive Futures weeks (he lost to Aisam Qureshi in the New Delhi leg singles final). Smit, a 331-ranked Dutch giant, was his opponent in the final.

Harsh's quiet confidence through highs and lows in the Mumbai week, stretching to 13 sets over five days, brings into focus the new partner in his life, Happy Bhalla, whose forte is psychology. The bearded New Yorker has been accompanying the Indian as coach since the Davis Cup away tie against The Netherlands and was at hand for the Futures. "I met him during the Tata Open. He has been touring with me since then. We have long discussions over tennis and life, the psychological aspects," said the Mumbai leg winner.

Bhalla, trying to explain his concept of 'wholistic' tennis based on Eastern philosophy, believes the player should get credit for achievements. "Finally it is the player on court who performs. I am only a motivator," said Harsh's professional coach-cum-psychologist who will accompany the Indian on a self-financed three-week tour to Nick Bollettieri Academy in the United States as well.

The Mumbai singles champion, who trains at the MSLTA, is paying for the Florida trip out of tennis winnings, apart from support from Cricket Club of India and a few CCI well-wishers like Raj Singh Dungarpur and Khushroo Suntook.

Harsh's mother and former Asian champion Nirupama Mankad, doubling up as touring coach prior to the new arrangement, reveals that her son has shed nervousness and is more focussed on task at hand.

The champion only due to mental strength held Ghouse and Ramaswami, the other two Indians with similar ability, at bay. Ramaswami was wondering how he lost after fighting point-for-point, matching stroke for stroke. "I had the chances, but couldn't get the breaks."

Mustafa Ghouse (left) and Aisam Qureshi, the doubles champions. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

Junior internationals Somdev Dev Varman, 18 years and training at the National Tennis Academy (Gurgaon), displayed his prowess against third seed Aisam Qureshi, reducing his famous rival to a non-entity. "I did not have a plan, just went out and hit, expecting him to pick holes in my game," admitted the 1142nd ranked Indian wild card, for whom the 6-3, 6-3 victory over an established opponent (ranked 447) will give confidence to make a mark in the seniors' event. He bowed out to Ramaswami in the quarters.

Fellow Indian Junior Rastogi, 17, supported by International Management Group (IMG), AITA, Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA) and Air-India lost to Varman in three sets in the MSLTA-sponsored event. Top seed Rohan Bopanna's Mumbai appearance ended at the first step, against Smit, due to a shoulder problem, while Japan's fourth seed Toshihide Matsui was outsmarted by Vishal Punna, another promising Indian justifying his wild card entry.

Qureshi continued his winning streak by picking up the doubles title in the company of Ghouse. The top seeded Pak-India combo defeated the Indian pair of Ramaswami and Sunil Kumar Sipaeya.

The winners picked up $630, besides 12 ATP points each, the losing finalist $330 as a team, plus eight pints individually. Harsh gained $1300 and 12 points for his first ITF Futures singles title in three weeks, Smit got $900 and eight points.

The results:

Finals: singles: 2-Harsh Mankad (India) bt Jasper Smit (The Netherlands) 7-6 (0), 6-3; Semi-finals: 2-Harsh Mankad bt Ajay Ramaswami (Ind) 6-7 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (2); Jasper Smit bt Vinod Sridhar (Ind) 6-3, 7-6 (2).

Doubles: 1-Aisam Qureshi (Pakistan)/Mustafa Ghouse (Ind) bt 2-Ajay Ramaswami/Sunil Kumar Sipaeya (Ind) 7-6 (6), 2-6, 7-5. Semi-finals: 1-Aisam Qureshi/Mustafa Ghouse bt 3-Kamala Kannan/ Manoj Mahadevan 6-3, 6-3; Ajay Ramaswami/Sunil Kumar Sipaeya bt Vishal Punna/Vinod Sridhar 6-2, 7-5.