Heuberger pockets first title of season

IT was a far cry from the serenity and beauty of the Swiss Alps.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

IT was a far cry from the serenity and beauty of the Swiss Alps. The atmosphere was dense with dust, and the sun looked like the moon. It was difficult for the residents of Delhi, familiar with dust-storms, to breathe.

Ivo Heuberger exults after beating Danai Udomchoke in the singles final. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Practising at the DLTA Complex, prior to the final that was scheduled for the evening, Ivo Heuberger of Switzerland could hardly breathe. His throat was drying up. Quite understandable for someone used to a crystal clear atmosphere back home.

Yet, as a professional on the tennis tour, Heuberger knew that he had a job on hand, and that he could not afford to miss the trophy that was there for the taking, and the 50 ATP points that would push him closer to the top 100 position in the world.

In a relatively better atmosphere in the evening, the 160th ranked Heuberger blew away the challenge from the wiry Thai, Danai Udomchoke, 6-2, 6-3, to pocket his first title for the season, in the 25,000 dollar Challenger.

It was like a swift breeze clearing up the atmosphere. Heuberger had reasons to be happy for it was the culmination of a successful fortnight in India for him. He had made it to the semifinals of the previous tournament in Bangalore, and had made enough points to jump up to No.137 in the world.

``I missed about nine weeks of tournaments in the early part of the season because of a back injury. The most important thing for me at the moment is that I am able to play. I played nine matches over two weeks and the back is fine. That is the most positive aspect for me'', said Heuberger, quite pleased with his fitness as much as his success.

Radoslav Lukaev (left) and Dmitry Vlasov, who won the doubles crown. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

For someone who had beaten the likes of Goran Ivanisevic, Alex Corretja and Max Mirnyi, handling the challenge from the lesser lights was no big task. Of course, at the Challenger level it is not easy, and Heuberger had to wade through a tough draw to the trophy.

Serving big and stroking with considerable intensity, Heuberger pulled on against Johan Settergren of Sweden and compatriot Yves Allegro in three setters in the first and third rounds. Thereafter, the Swiss was on a song, as if he was skiing in the Alps, as he powered past the second-seeded Gregory Carraz of France, the champion of the Bangalore event and the Thai Udomchoke, who was playing his maiden final at this level.

``It gives me a lot of confidence for the season ahead. I look forward to breaking into the top 100 soon'', said Heuberger, who handled the hot conditions pretty well through the week and the dusty setting on the final day with aplomb, like a true champion.

On his part, Danai Udomchoke, who had been used to competing in India, was quite pleased with his efforts. For, the Thai had beaten the 105th ranked topseed John Van Lottum of the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.

The 217th ranked Udomchoke recovered from being a set down against the Dutch and tilted the match with a break in the 12th game of the second set. Into the decider, John Van Lottum was busy throwing tantrums, hitting the ball out of the stadium, and finding fault with everything around that it was no wonder that he hardly provided any resistance to the Thai.

Udomchoke played very well in the climax, choking the Dutch with his accurate play, and Van Lottum looked to have been exhausted and devoid of energy, more mental than physical, as he failed to win a game in the third set.

The win inspired Udomchoke to another fine performance against Louis Vosloo of South Africa in the semifinals. However, in the final, the Thai was far too erratic to provide a meaningful challenge to the bulldozing firepower of Heuberger.

Danai Udomchoke was far too erratic to provide a meaningful challenge in the final. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

``It was his game today. I couldn't do anything'', was the honest observation of Udomchoke, who moved up to a career-best ranking of 185th in the world, after making his first Challenger final in his sixth attempt.

Udomchoke had earlier crushed the Indian hopes as he beat the young man from Coorg, Rohan Bopanna, 7-5, 6-2 in the first round. Having lost in the first round of the Bangalore event, Udomchoke was low on confidence, and it was a creditable effort on his part to have revived his fortunes.

Bopanna got off to a great start as he won the first 10 points without any fuss, but he looked to have lost his way thereafter. Once he got his grip over the proceedings, Udomchoke grabbed the opportunity.

The effort was worth a quarterfinal berth, as Udomchoke's second round opponent, the sixth-seeded Yen-Hsun Lu of Chinese Taipei gave a walkover to rush back home to recover from a recurring illness.

Bopanna's plight was understandable as he had played tournaments for eight weeks on the trot. More than that he had other problems to grapple with that took his attention from his real job, of playing tennis as a professional.

It was a good opportunity to pick up precious ATP points at home against quality opposition, but Bopanna was not ready. It was perhaps because his sponsorship contract with the All India Tennis Association was on the rocks, and the Coorg lad eventually walked out of the deal, to breathe free and find his own support.

``At this stage, tennis is most important for me'', said Bopanna, who vowed that he would play better in the season ahead and jump up the rankings.

The Challengers were being hosted in India after a gap of two years, and it was a pity that the Indian players were unable to capitalise on it.

There were a few positive signs, in the solid serve and volley game of Prakash Amritraj, who played with passion and aggression. Prakash made the second round, the only Indian to do so, and went down with guns blazing against Yves Allegro.

``I will work on my game and come back stronger'', said Prakash, who will be turning a pro soon. If he works on his game further, Prakash will be able to sustain the Indian challenge in tournaments around the world, and possibly gain an entry into the Indian Davis Cup squad.

Harsh Mankad who had made it to the semifinals the previous week, was unable to match the pace of Dmitry Vlasov of Russia and let himself be overpowered in straight sets.

The deco-turf court was a bit too quick to his liking, but a confident Harsh said that he would soon break into the top-300. He opted to play the Satellite circuit in Portugal on clay, over the next four weeks, to grind valuable ATP points.

Vijay Kannan stumbled off to a bad start and was unable to put up a good fight against Yen-Hsun Lu, who had reportedly changed his mind about conceding his first round and taking a flight home, after seeing the draw.

Vijay had the consolation of winning a round in doubles, with Ajay Ramaswamy 7-6 (7-1), 6-7 (11-13), 7-6 (7-5) against Jonathan Marray and David Sherwood. The Indian pair eventually went down 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 3-6 against Yuri Schukin of Russia and Orest Tereshchuk of Ukraine in the quarterfinals. Harsh Mankad and Vishaal Uppal also lost in the doubles quarterfinals.

Vishaal Uppal who did very well to come through the qualifying event found John Van Lottum too hot to handle in the first round of the singles main draw. Vishaal had regained his confidence following a fine match against Heuberger in Bangalore.

``I am not just a doubles specialist'', muttered Vishaal as he decided to train harder for the Satellite circuit to be staged in the country after a month.

There was the 16-year-old Karan Rastogi who captured everyone's imagination with a brilliant run in the qualifying event, and a good first round in the main draw.

Karan had done enough as a junior to be noticed, but what he did in the Challenger was beyond anybody's wildest imagination. Karan beat three quality players, Jamie Delgado (6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-0), 6-4) and David Sherwood (6-2, 6-2) of Britain and Luke Bourgeois (4-6, 6-2, 6-2) of Australia in the qualifying event to make the main draw.

With sound basics and a good temperament, Karan gained in confidence with each match. He had his chances against Arvind Parmar of Britain in the first round of the main draw, but eventually lost 6-3, 3-6, 4-6 due to lack of experience.

``I have gained a lot of confidence to play among the men'', said Karan, who should obviously crack into the elite league among the juniors soon, thanks to the renewed faith in his own game.

The 18-year-old Somdev Dev Varman also played very well in beating Orest Tereshchuk of Ukraine 7-5, 6-0 and Ajay Ramaswami 6-4, 6-0 in the first two rounds of the qualifying event before going down to Jonathan Erlich of Israel. Incidentally, Erlich won five three-setters in a row including three in the qualifying event.

Tushar Liberhan capitalised on a favourable draw when he got a bye in the first round, as the top-seeded Johan Settergren of Sweden was drafted into the main draw in a vacant slot meant for a special exempt. Tushar beat Vivian Chhetri comfortably in the second round, but had no answers to the big game of Jonathan Marray of Britain in the final round.

Mustafa Ghouse had missed two matchpoints in the previous round against Marray. Vinod Sridhar had also missed matchpoints against Erlich in the first round and Chatwinder Singh played a good second round in the qualifying event against Erlich before going down in three sets.

Overall, it was a healthy sign that the Indian players were competing with the professionals, despite lacking in experience.

With more such tournaments, there is no reason why the Indian players cannot make it big at the next level.

The results :

Singles (final) : Ivo Heuberger (Sui) bt Danai Udomchoke (Tha) 6-2, 6-3; Semifinals : Danai Udomchoke bt Louis Vosloo (RSA) 6-3, 6-1; Ivo Heuberger bt Gregory Carraz (Fra) 6-4, 6-3; Quarterfinals : Danai Udomchoke bt John Van Lottum (Ned) 3-6, 7-5, 6-0; Louis Vosloo bt Rodolphe Cadart (Fra) 6-4, 6-2; Ivo Heuberger bt Yves Allegro (Sui) 6-7 (2-7), 6-4, 6-4; Gregory Carraz bt Jonathan Erlich (Isr) 6-1, 6-3.

Doubles (final) : Radoslav Lukaev (Bul) and Dmitry Vlasov (Rus) bt Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram (Isr) 7-6 (8-6), 4-6, 6-2; Semifinals : Radoslav Lukaev and Dmitry Vlasov bt Yuri Schukin (Rus) and Orest Tereshchuk (Ukr) 6-3, 7-6 (4); Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram bt Yvs Allegro (Sui) and Jean-Francois Bachelot (Fra) 7-6 (7-4), 6-3.