Indian girls remain in the same spot

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

The members of the Thailand team are all smiles after they beat India to qualify for the World Group play-off. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

IT was like running on a tread-mill, you sweat hard but do not reach anywhere. The Indian girls did all the running, but stayed where they were, in the Asia-Oceania group `I', in the Fed Cup tennis tournament in New Delhi. Young girls like Ankita Bhambri and Sania Mirza were richer with the experience that may help them provide a new dimension to their professional career in the near future.

The fortunes of the team revolved around the form of the 17-year-old Sania Mirza. The young girl, a bronze medallist with Leander Paes in the mixed doubles event in the Busan Asian Games, had recently won her maiden doubles title in a WTA Tour event back home in Hyderabad. She had played her part well in collecting a rich haul in the Afro-Asian Games. She had trained hard to become a better player after having won the Wimbledon junior girls doubles title last year at the Mecca of tennis.

The faith on Sania was not misplaced, but the Hyderabad lass, supported by the GVK group and the Andhra Pradesh government, could not entirely live up to the expectations. Considering the overall strength of the Indian team and the unimpressive rankings of the players, it was a splendid effort that the team reached up to the qualification play-off.

The Indonesian squad which gained promotion to the World Group play-off. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Yet, there was no doubt that it was a case of missed chances, as the team could have made it to the World Group play-off itself, had it sported a little more pluck, and enjoyed a little more luck.

With Sania Mirza ranked at 411 and Ankita Bhambri at 510, along with the rarely played Rushmi Chakravarthi at 311, not to forget that the key player in the Indian doubles team, Manisha Malhotra, not having a doubles ranking, the figures did not inspire any confidence on the Indian team, on the eve of the tournament.

It was the local girl Ankita Bhambri who stole the thunder, as she won her first three singles matches to put India ahead against Chinese Taipei, Korea and Indonesia. It was as good a performance as one could have asked from a 17-year-old girl, who was making her debut into the Indian senior team.

Of course, Ankita and Sania had combined brilliantly to take the Indian junior Fed Cup team to the No.5 position in the world two years back, in the under-16 competition. To reach that far from among 85 countries in that competition, was indeed a splendid effort by the two talented girls.

It looked as if Ankita was renewing her link with the Indian team, as she played with utmost concentration, plenty of confidence and a sound game in winning her matches against I-Ting Wang of Chinese Taipei, Kyung-Mi Chang of Korea and Sandy Gumulya of Indonesia.

Except for dropping a set against the Korean girl, Ankita was in roaring form as she served consistently hard and stroked with intensity, in cruising home in straight sets.

Ankita Bhambri won three of her singles matches to steal the thunder. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Her gutsy fare apart, it was a bonus that Ankita beat Sandy Gumulya as she had lost to the same girl in straight sets about two months earlier in a $10,000 tournament in Hyderabad. It was a bonus that could have served as a ticket to take the Indian team into the World Group play-off. It was not to be, as Sania managed to convert only three of the 11 breakpoints in the match against Wynne Prakusya, who played increasingly well after being down 0-40 on serve at 4-5 in the first set. Sania could have served out at 5-3 itself, but her own service continued to trouble and undid all her good work, almost till the end of the tournament.

Wynne did play well, but it was Sania who struggled to find her rhythm with the light balls as she let her off the hook. It was a match that India needed to win to top the group so that it could avoid the all-powerful Thailand that had the world No. 54 Tamarine Tanasugarn in its fold.

The Indian doubles team of Manisha and Sania had done well in the earlier two matches against Taipei and Korea, but lost the contest in the first set tie-break, after having bravely staged a recovery earlier, saving two setpoints at 1-5 in the seventh game. With Angelique Widjaja, the former Wimbledon junior champion, and owner of two singles and two doubles titles on the WTA Tour, anchoring the doubles team with Wynne Prakusya, Indonesia cruised, not just past India, but all the way to the World Group play-off.

In the play-off for the qualification spot from the zone, the same Wynne and Angelique were down two matchpoints in the second set of the decisive doubles against New Zealand, before they staged a remarkable recovery to win the contest in three sets, amidst joyous celebrations in the stands.

Thus, India need not lose heart at being overwhelmed by the second-seeded Indonesia. In fact, the team had done well to beat Uzbekistan in the decisive doubles, after Ankita had lost a rare match against the former Asian Championship runner-up Ivanna Isroilova. Sania had won her singles against Akgul Amanmuradova, the strongly-built girl who has won a Challenger in Mumbai, but there was a lot of drama in the doubles as Manisha and Sania were down 0-3, having been broken twice, and were pushed to their wits end by Isroilova and the 15-year-old Vlada Ekshibarova before winning that match 7-6 (21-19), 6-1.

It was an important victory, as Korea could have pushed India out from the regional play-off, in case of a three-way tie, as it threatened to beat Indonesia at one stage.

By then, India had ensured that it would stay in group `I', as the third team in the five-member group did not have to go through the relegation play-off.

On hindsight, it may be argued that coach Enrico Piperno should have stuck to Ankita, despite her having lost the match against the Uzbeks, but the captain gave the best chance for Sania to guide the fortunes of the team. In the event, she failed to deliver as Sania converted only one of 11 breakpoints against Suchanan Viratprasert, another talented girl who had won a Challenger recently.

If she works on her serve and plays judiciously, knowing the importance of each point and the importance to play the key points with a lot more intensity, rather than spraying her shots around, Sania can indeed guide the Indian team to the World Group play-off next year.

Ankita Bhambri had done well to improve her game, an effort that was rewarded when she qualified to the main draw in the WTA event in Hyderabad.

If she works on her mobility a lot more and the all important aspect of recovery before the next match especially after a string of matches, she should be winning bigger tournaments soon.

Ankita had looked a step slow in the fourth match, and that was perhaps one big reason why captain Piperno replaced her with Sania in the play-off against Thailand.

Sania Mirza could not entirely live up to the expectations as she could win only five of the nine matches she was involved in. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

The No.1 Rushmi Chakravarthi had to swallow a lot of pride and warm the bench till she was asked to play against Tamarine Tanasugarn. Even with all the preparation it would have been tough to match one of the finest players that Asia has ever seen, and it was no surprise that Rushmi eked out a solitary game against Tamarine.

It was a very sporting decision by Manisha to have answered to the request of Piperno in the affirmative, after the captain had sought her experienced assistance for the doubles after the efforts to make Shikha Uberoi represent the country did not come off. The ITF did rule in Shikha's favour to represent India, after she had been brought up in the US, but the stipulation was that she could represent the country only after August 19.

Two days before the draw, Piperno called Manisha, who had not played in a tournament for months, and had been busy coaching the Russian Anastassia Rodionova in tournaments around the world, over the phone and requested her to fly from Mumbai to join the team.

Manisha was fit and played very well, the best that some of us had seen from her for years, as she played the doubles with craft and class.

She served well and the volleys were quite sharp as she partnered Sania with great success. However, she hurt her shoulder in the first service game as the match against Indonesia meandered past midnight following rain interruptions, and thus it was difficult for Manisha to be at her best thereafter. Still, the 27-year-old Manisha played hard to help India win three of the four doubles matches, a no mean achievement, since it was a decisive rubber most of the time in doubles.

The Indian girls would be so much better after a year, and if they work on improving their rankings through the season, India may be seeded in the next edition of the Fed Cup and the progress to the World Group play-off may be a little more easy.

Anyway, it was a splendid effort that the girls made it to the regional play-off, despite their limited strength. Full marks to captain Enrico Piperno for making the best use of the limited resources at his disposal, though Rushmi may perhaps disagree.

Thailand and Indonesia qualified for the World Group play-off. Uzbekistan and Philippines were relegated to group II, while Kazakhstan and Singapore got promoted to group I.

The results (India only):

Qualifying play-off: Thailand beat India 2-0 (Suchanan Viratprasert bt Sania Mirza 7-6 (7-3), 6-1; Tamarine Tanasugarn bt Rushmi Chakravarthi 6-0, 6-1).

League:

India beat Uzbekistan 2-1 (Ankita Bhambri lost to Ivanna Isroilova 4-6, 4-6; Sania Mirza bt Akgul Amanmuradova 6-4, 6-2; Manisha Malhotra and Sania Mirza bt Vlada Ekshibarova and Ivanna Isroilova 7-6 (21-19), 6-1).

Indonesia beat India 2-1 (Sandy Gumulya lost to Ankita Bhambri 4-6, 4-6; Wynne Prakusya bt Sania Mirza 7-5, 6-4; Wynne Prakusya and Angelique Widjaja bt Manisha Malhotra and Sania Mirza 7-6 (7-2), 6-3).

India beat Korea 2-1 (Ankita Bhambri bt Kyung-Mi Chang 6-1, 4-6, 6-2; Sania Mirza lost to Mi-Ra Jeon 4-6, 2-6; Manisha Malhotra and Sania Mirza bt Yoon-Jeong Cho and Mi-Ra Jeon 7-6 (7-2), 7-5).

India beat Chinese Taipei 3-0 (Ankita Bhambri bt I-Ting Wang 6-3, 6-1; Sania Mirza bt Chia-Jung Chuang 6-4, 7-6 (7-3); Manisha Malhotra and Sania Mirza bt I-Hsuan Hwang and Tin-Wen Wang 7-5, 6-1).