Harsh Mankad too good for the rest

KALYAN ASHOK

THE $10,000 ITF Futures Circuit ended with three different winners in each leg at Chandigarh, New Delhi and Davangere. When there is a set of players at the same level, such an outcome cannot be avoided and it sure is a healthy sign, which keeps the players on their toes. Hardly five years ago it was tough for an Indian player to succeed on the ITF Circuit, but now there is a strong Indian presence right up to the title round and that is indeed a very positive sign.

The current circuit ended at Davangere on a happy note for 23-year-old Harsh Mankad, who has matured not only as a level-headed player, but also as someone who is a solid stroke-maker.

Harsh lost a close one at Chandigarh to Russian Pavel Ivanov and crashed out early in Delhi, but he was really on a roll on the newly laid fast deco turf at the Davangere Tennis Club. Playing near flawless game, he proved too good for the field. Except Vishaal Uppal in the first round and to some extent the seasoned Nitin Kirtane in the final, no one really stretched him.

True, Rohan Bopanna and Ivanov did not play at Davangere, but given Harsh's fine form, neither could have really stopped him. Harsh's victory here was all the more creditable, given the conditions. Davangere was hot and humid and the spectators were noisy. For most of them tennis was a big 'mela'.

But that can be forgiven, and the Futures, as KSLTA hopes, would create better awareness and interest in the game among the public in this small town.

Harsh Mankad played at his best and never let his guard down. "The fact that I played well did not make me over-confident. I always believe you learn from each match and I played one at a time and kept changing tactics to suit each rival," said Mankad, analysing his success.

In a field which had such talented young players as Vinod Sridhar, Vijay Kannan, Vishaal Uppal, Sunil Kumar Sipaeya, Manoj Mahadevan and Ajay Ramaswami, Nitin Kirtane's presence in the final might have come as a surprise to many. But then, for Kirtane, the 29-year-old southpaw, who had a roller-coaster ride to the summit, nothing could have been more rewarding after weeks of poor tennis in the earlier legs. "I was left wondering after Delhi, whether there was any point making it to Davangere at all. But then, I went and played the way I really wanted to. Though I lost to Harsh, I got the confidence back," said Nitin Kirtane.

Harsh, of course, was the favourite in the final, but he did not take his challenger lightly, for Kirtane had the ability to stretch him with his solid backhand, clever lobs and relentless slugging from the back court. Mayur Vasanth, Harsh's uncle and coach, had a word of advice for him before he went in. "Do a quick job and don't ever make the mistake of rallying with him." Harsh did exactly that in the first set, as he overwhelmed Kirtane with his all court game at 6-1.

Kirtane, after being at the receiving end in the first set, suffered another setback when he dropped the serve in the very first game of the second set. He then decided that he had nothing to lose and went flat out in the second set with a barrage of groundstrokes.

With the 6000-strong crowd supporting the underdog Kirtane, Harsh, inexplicably cut his pace and got into a slugging act from the backcourt, and his rival simply thrived on it.

As Harsh kept making unforced errors, Kirtane broke him in the sixth game and tied the score at three-all. The two played some of their best shots during the next three games, without holding anything back. But the younger and fitter Harsh clearly had the edge as shadows lengthened across the court and the hastily put floodlights were turned on. Harsh held his serve in the 12th game without conceding a point and, in the tie-breaker, he simply outplayed a faltering Kirtane at 7-1 to wrap up the match at 6-1, 7-6 (7-1).

Both Harsh and Kirtane had contrasting routes to the final. Harsh, in a quick-paced tie, beat the Delhi finalist, Ajay Ramaswami 6-1, 6-4 in 81 minutes, while Kirtane outlasted Manoj Mahadevan at 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in a seesaw struggle lasting 157 minutes.

Harsh Mankad and Ajay Ramaswami, who have played each other a lot as juniors and then in the U.S. in the NCAA circuit, knew each other's game well. As such, Harsh was determined to get a kick-start and that he did, blasting Ramaswami 6-1 in the first set. But in the second, Ajay played some great tennis, hitting winners from all corners of the court. With a 4-1 lead after breaking Harsh in the second game, Ajay clearly had the upperhand, but Harsh struck back with a brilliant counter assault, stepping up the pace. Ajay then made too many unforced errors with his returns and saw the set and tie slip away from him as Harsh took six five straight game to shut him out.

It was a sweet revenge in the other semi-final for Nitin Kirtane, who had lost to Manoj Mahadevan in the semi-finals of the National grass court championship in Kolkata in a closely fought three-setter. Manoj simply didn't get the pace in this match as Kirtane kept him in check with his strong baseline play. Despite his superior serve, Manoj made for too many errors with his forehand and with a few line calls going against him, he lost focus after the 11th game of the second set. From then onwards, it was a downhill ride for him.

Earlier in the quarter-finals, Harsh made short work of an off colour Vijay Kannan 6-1, 6-4, while Nitin Kirtane beat back a late challenge from qualifier Sriranga Sudhakar at 6-1, 7-6 (7-3). Manoj Mahadevan beat the foreign contender, Anton Kokurin of Uzbekistan 6-3, 3-6, 6-1. The fourth seed, Boris Borgula of Slovakia, who was suffering from blisters in his feet after the second round matches, conceded his tie to Ajay Ramaswami.

It was a disappointing outing for the top seed, Mustafa Ghouse and the newly-crowned National hardcourt champion, Vinod Sridhar. Ghouse went down to Sriranga Sudhakar 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, while Vinod Sridhar fell to Nitin Kirtane in a tie, which went the full distance at 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (3-7). After the two split the first two sets, it was sheer mental strength and stamina that counted in the decider which went to the tie-breaker. Kirtane played it virtually from his mind, as his legs almost gave away, to record a memorable win.

One expected a better show from Sunil Kumar Sipaeya, the second seed, who had won a title and made the final in the last Futures Circuit at home a few months ago. But a jaded Sunil simply went through the motions and lost tamely to Ajay Ramaswami 6-4, 6-3.

Another fancied player to bite the dust early was Vishaal Uppal. But the 26-year-old Davis Cupper had the misfortune of running into an in-form Harsh Mankad. Vishaal did his best, playing an entertaining game marked with sharp volleys and delectable backhand slices which kept Harsh at bay for a while, but Harsh showed better consistency to prevail at 7-5, 4-6, 6-2.

The doubles final too was an all-Indian affair and the top-seeded duo of Vijay Kannan and Vishaal Uppal beat Ajay Ramaswami and Sunil Kumar Sipaeya 6-3, 3-6, 7-5. It was the second straight win for Vijay and Vishaal after their triumph in the second leg at Delhi. Though it was their third tournament together, Vishaal and Vijay seemed to be getting along pretty well.

The results:

Singles final: Harsh Mankad bt Nitin Kirtane 6-1, 7-6 (7-1). Semi-finals: Nitin Kirtane bt Manoj Mahadevan 4-6, 7-5, 6-3; Harsh Mankad bt Ajay Ramaswami 6-1, 6-4. Quarter-finals: Harsh Mankad bt Vijay Kannan 6-1, 6-4; Nitin Kirtane bt Sriranga Sudhakar 6-1, 7-6 (7-3); Manoj Mahadevan bt Anton Kokurin (Uzb) 6-3, 3-6, 6-1; Ajay Ramaswami w/o Boris Borgula (Svk).

Doubles final: Vishaal Uppal & Vijay Kannan bt Ajay Ramaswami & Sunil Kumar Sipaeya 6-3, 3-6, 7-5. Semi-finals: Vishaal Uppal & Vijay Kannan bt Rishi Sridhar & Kamala Kannan 7-5, 7-6 (7-5); Ajay Ramaswami & Sunil Kumar Sipaeya bt Anton Kokurin (Uzb) & Nitin Kirtane 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.