India lives up to its seeding

PLAYING tennis is a tremendous education. Having circled around the world a few times, competing in all the five continents and in about 500-odd international matches including the juniors, the 18-year-old Sania Mirza has the head of a sage.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

The Chinese team — Jiang Hong Wei (Manager-Captain), Jie Zheng, Ting Li and Tian Tian Sun — which beat Australia in the zonal final.-RAJEEV BHATT

PLAYING tennis is a tremendous education. Having circled around the world a few times, competing in all the five continents and in about 500-odd international matches including the juniors, the 18-year-old Sania Mirza has the head of a sage.

It was thus no surprise as one watched her field the questions from the media with aplomb at the Press Club of India in New Delhi the other day.

"Earlier there used to be the question, `who after Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi'. Now that we have one Sania Mirza, people are asking for more Sanias. We need to have the patience and there will be more Sanias coming up'', said the Hyderabad lass, who pretty well knows as to how hard it has all been to get one Sania in the first place.

Indian women's tennis has never been in such a spotlight, and it owes a lot to Sania. Though she has been making a gradual progress over the years, Sania has sprinted to glory in the last few months and has won the admiration of an entire nation by reaching the third round of the Australian Open, winning the Hyderabad Open despite twisted ankles and beating the world No.7 and the reigning US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, the latest Russian phenomenon, rather comprehensively 6-4, 6-2 after the Russian had held a gamepoint to go up 5-0 at the million dollar event in Dubai.

Ankita Bhambri (left), Sania Mirza and Rushmi Chakravarthi with captain Enrico Piperno. The Indians took the bronze.-RAJEEV BHATT

However, there was literally a twist to the whole cycle as Sania was forced to take rest for a few weeks to let her twisted ankles heal following medical advice, after she had checked up with the doctors in the US during the big event in Miami and back home in Hyderabad.

Having pulled India from group `II' to group `I' in the Asia-Oceania zone in Japan in 2003 and having played the role of a backbone in the last edition both in singles and doubles last year, Sania was indeed keen to shoulder the responsibility once again in the Fed Cup with the new-found support from the US-based Shikha Uberoi.

Yet, she could not go against medical advice and jeopardise her career. She had worked too hard and for too long in building up a sterling career and thus restrained from taking the court despite pressure from various quarters.

"I would rather play Fed Cup for the next five years than just this year. The doctors fear that the injury may become chronic and lead to surgery. We don't want such a thing at this stage of my career'', Sania said.

The whole event was built on her and thus Sania played a good sport in being on the sidelines throughout the tournament and cheering her mates, especially Shikha Uberoi who made it a success story for herself.

The U. S. based Shikha Uberoi made her debut for India a memorable one. Combining with Rushmi Chakravarthi she clinched the decisive doubles against Korea.-AFP

It was a big success for Indian women's tennis as the crowds came in thousands, not just to watch Sania sitting on the sidelines but also watch the exhilarating action. The court No.1 was overflowing with people when India played Korea for the third place, and the match had to be shifted to the centre-court to make everyone feel comfortable and enjoy the climax.

Quite thankfully, China, even without the services of the 42nd ranked Na Li in the final, was far too clinical as it overwhelmed Australia, winning both the singles in quick time through Tian Tian Sun and Jie Zheng, to leave the stage and the `live' television coverage for the host.

Right from the beginning it was clear that China, with two top-100 singles players and the Athens Olympics gold winning doubles team of Ting Li and Tian Tian Sun, would take the lone qualifier's spot from the zone for the World Group play-off.

Figuring in the same pool with China and playing without Sania, it was clear that India would need a miracle to get past the league stage itself.

The ambition of India was thus restricted to living up to its third seeding. One of the reasons that Sania chose to be with the team was to ensure that it would have a seeding because of her rank of 73. With Shikha at 130, and with a rich experience of having played quality tennis around the world, especially in taking the fight to Venus Williams in a second round at the US Open after having come through the qualifying event last season, there was hope that the host would make a good fight of it.

It was a profound statement when Shikha combined superbly with the 28-year-old Rushmi Chakravarthi in clinching the decisive doubles for India against Korea in the match for the bronze medal. India had lived up to its status without Sania Mirza, and that was some effort indeed.

Evie Dominikovic, who won two of her three singles matches for Australia, found the going tough against Chinese Tian Tian Sun in the opening singles of the final.-AFP

Captain Enrico Piperno had to depend on the seasoned Rushmi, who has been part of the Fed Cup team as far back as in 1994, as his trump card Ankita Bhambri was unable to deliver the goods as well as she had done with a 3-1 record in singles in the last edition.

The twelfth standard examinations followed by a foot injury meant that the 18-year-old Ankita did not have the right preparation for the tournament. Morever, early exits in the $10,000 and $25,000 tournaments in the fortnight prior to the Fed Cup meant that Ankita lacked not just the sharpness but also the confidence in her game.

Though Ankita did improve with every match, she was woefully out of form both in singles and doubles. The captain did put Rushmi, who had reached the finals of both singles and doubles in the $25,000 tournament the previous week, in the singles match against China, but after a nice start when she led 3-1 against Jie Zheng, Rushmi lost her way as she was not used to that level of tennis.

The stage actually belonged to Shikha, but the girl was unable to goad herself to her best performance against Na Li who proved too quick with her fluent forehand winners.

The best part of the whole Fed Cup was the manner in which Shikha bounced back from the disappointment of a tame game against the Chinese No.1 to serve with sting and hit her forehand with punch in the match against Korea the following evening.

It was a sight to find Shikha jumping up repeatedly to express her happiness both after her singles and doubles matches in the contest for the third place. She had yearned to play for India and had earned the right after considerable wait. Overall, she did a very good job of making her debut a memorable one.

It will be an equally engrossing challenge next season, when Sania and Shikha combine in their bid to take India to the next stage, as Australia will pose a tough question. There is also a possibility of teams in the zone like Indonesia, Thailand and Japan that figure in the World Group, apart from China itself, returning to the zonal competition. You also have to tackle a team like Uzbekistan which returned to group `I' from group `II'.

Australia was playing in the zone for the first time in the history of Fed Cup dating back to 1963 and was without the services of the No.9 ranked Alicia Molik and the 92nd ranked Nicole Pratt, and the 52nd ranked Samantha Stosur was unable to make a difference to the team's fortunes when it mattered.

"We are supporting Alicia Molik as she believes that she has a good chance for the No.1 ranking. She has promised to be with the team next time'', said the captain of the Australian team, John Alexander.

Happy to avoid relegation this time following an easy grouping with Singapore and Kazakhstan, Indian tennis can hope to make a quantum jump by next year, if the momentum is sustained. Sania may be in the top-50 then and Shikha in the top-100. A whole bunch of Indian girls may be knocking on the doors to join the big league, and Ankita Bhambri may be prominent among them, for the girl has it in her to make it big despite the disappointment in this edition of the Fed Cup.

The results Group-I:

Final: China beat Australia 2-0 (Tian Tian Sun bt Evie Dominikovic 6-3, 7-5; Jie Zheng bt Samantha Stosur 6-3, 6-4).

Third place: India beat Korea 2-1 (Ankita Bhambri lost to Ye-Ra Lee 6-1, 6-3; Shikha Uberoi bt Jin-Hee Kim 6-3, 6-1; Rushmi Chakravarthi and Shikha Uberoi bt Kyung-Mi Chang and Jin-A Lee 6-3, 6-3).

Relegation play-off:

New Zealand beat Singapore 2-0 (Paula Marama bt Shao Fang Ong 6-1, 6-0; Marina Erakovic bt Yun-Ling Cassandra Ng 6-0, 6-0).

Chinese Taipei beat Kazakhstan 2-0 (Hsiao-Han Chao bt Tatyana Ignatchenko 6-4, 6-3; Yi Chen bt Mariya Kovaleva 6-2, 6-0).

Teams relegated to group `II': Singapore and Kazakhstan.

Pool `A'

China beat India 3-0 (Jie Zheng bt Rushmi Chakravarthi 6-3, 6-0; Na Li bt Shikha Uberoi 6-1, 6-2; Ting Li and Tian Tian Sun bt Ankita Bhambri and Rushmi Chakravarthi 6-2, 6-3).

Kazakhstan beat Singapore 2-1 (Tatyana Ignatchenko lost to Wei Ping Lee 6-2, 3-6, 4-6; Mariya Kovaleva bt Shao Fang Ong 6-2, 6-4; Mariya Kovaleva and Ekaterina Morozova bt Yun-Ling Cassandra Ng and Wei Ping Lee 6-2, 6-0).

India beat Kazakhstan 3-0 (Rushmi Chakravarthi bt Ekaterina Morozova 6-0, 6-1; Shikha Uberoi bt Mariya Kovaleva 6-0, 6-4; Shikha Uberoi and Ankita Bhambri bt Mariya Kovaleva and Ekaterina Morozova 6-4, 6-4).

China beat Singapore 3-0 (Jie Zheng bt Wei Ping Lee 6-1, 6-1; Na Li bt Shao Fang Ong 6-0, 6-0; Ting Li and Tian Tian Sun bt Yun-Ling Cassandra Ng and Wei Ping Lee 6-0, 6-1).

India beat Singapore 3-0 (Ankita Bhambri bt Wei Ping Lee 6-1, 7-5; Shikha Uberoi bt Yun-Ling Cassandra Ng 6-0, 6-0; Shikha Uberoi and Rushmi Chakravarthi bt Yun-Ling Cassandra Ng and Shao Fang Ong 6-1, 6-1).

China beat Kazakhstan 3-0 (Jie Zheng bt Tatyana Ignatchenko 6-2, 6-2; Na Li bt Mariya Kovaleva 6-0, 6-1; Ting Li and Tian Tian Sun bt Mariya Kovaleva and Ekaterina Morozova 6-1, 6-2)

Pool `B'

New Zealand beat Chinese Taipei 3-0 (Paula Marama bt Yen-Hua Lu 6-3, 6-2; Marina Erakovic bt Yi Chen 6-2, 6-3; Eden Marama and Leanne Baker bt Ting-Wen Wang and Hsiao-Han Chao 6-0, 6-4).

Australia beat Korea 2-1 (Evie Dominikovic bt Ye-Ra Lee 6-0, 4-6, 6-3; Samantha Stosur bt Jin-Hee Kim 6-3, 7-5; Sophie Ferguson and Bryanne Stewart lost to Kyung-Mi Chang and Jin-A Lee 5-7, 6-7 (4)).

Australia beat Chinese Taipei 3-0 (Sophie Ferguson bt Hsiao-Han Chao 6-1, 6-2; Samantha Stosur bt Yi Chen 6-0, 6-2; Samantha Stosur and Bryanne Stewart bt Yen-Hua Lu and Ting-Wen Wang 6-1, 6-3).

Korea beat New Zealand 2-1 (Ye-Ra Lee bt Leanne Baker 6-4, 3-6, 6-4; Jin-Hee Kim lost to Marina Erakovic 1-6, 4-6; Kyung-Mi Chang and Jin-Hee Kim bt Eden Marama and Paula Marama 2-6, 6-3, 7-5).

Australia beat New Zealand 3-0 (Evie Dominikovic bt Leanne Baker 6-2, 6-3; Samantha Stosur bt Marina Erakovic 6-4, 6-4; Evie Dominikovic and Bryanne Stewart bt Leanne Baker and Paula Marama 6-7 (7), 6-1, 6-4).

Korea beat Chinese Taipei 3-0 (Ye-Ra Lee bt Ting-Wen Wang 6-2, 6-0; Jin-Hee Kim bt Yi Chen 6-2, 6-1; Kyung Mi Chang and Jin-A Le bt Yen-Hua Lu and Hsiao-Han Chao 6-4, 6-1).

Group-II:

Uzbekistan beat Turkmenistan 3-0 (Dilyara Saidkhodjaeva bt Ummarahmat Alisultanova 6-0, 6-0; Akgul Amanmuradova bt Almira Halliyeva 6-0, 6-1; Akgul Amanmuradova and Dilyara Saidkhodjaeva bt Almira Halliyeva and Ummarahmat Alisultanova 6-0, 6-0).

Philippines beat Syria 3-0 (Denise Dy bt Hazar Sidki 6-0, 6-0; Anja-Vanessa Peter bt Shaza Tinawi 6-0, 6-3; Czarina-Mae Arevalo and Denise Dy bt Hazar Sidki and Nivin Kezbari Czarina-Mae Arevalo and Denise Dy bt Hazar Sidki and Nivin Kezbari 6-1, 6-1).

Philippines beat Turkmenistan 3-0 (Denise Dy bt Inna Gavrilenko 6-1, 6-0; Anja-Vanessa Peter bt Almira Halliyeva 6-1, 6-1; Czarina-Mae Arevalo and Denise Dy bt Almira Halliyeva and Ummarahmat Alisultanova 6-1, 6-0).

Uzbekistan beat Syria 3-0 (Dilyara Saidkhodjaeva bt Nivin Kezbari 6-0, 6-0; Akgul Amanmuradova bt Shaza Tinawi 6-0, 6-0; Akgul Amanmuradova and Dilyara Saidkhodjaeva bt Hazar Sidki and Nivin Kezbari 6-1, 6-2).

Uzbekistan beat Philippines 3-0 (Ivanna Israilova bt Anja-Vanessa Peter 4-6, 6-2, 7-5; Akgul Amanmuradova bt Czarina-Mae Arevalo 6-0, 6-2; Akgul Amanmuradova and Dilyara Saidkhodjaeva bt Czarina-Mae Arevalo and Denise Dy 6-4, 6-4).

Syria beat Turkmenistan 2-1 (Hazar Sidki lost to Ummarahmat Alisultanova bt Hazar Sidki 2-6, 2-6; Shaza Tinawi bt Almira Halliyeva 6-3, 6-3; Shaza Tinawi and Hazar Sidki bt Almira Halliyeva and Ummarahmat Alisultanova 6-1, 6-3).

Teams qualifying for group `I': Uzbekistan and Philippines.