Isha Lakhani claims maiden title

THE heat became a focal point for action and debate in the International Tennis Federation's Women's Circuit first leg.

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

Isha Lakhani with a masterly display took the singles trophy. — Pic. O.P. SONI-

THE heat became a focal point for action and debate in the International Tennis Federation's Women's Circuit first leg. With summer at its peak in Indore and temperature hovering around 40 degrees, tennis became a test of endurance at the expense of skill. Shruti Dhawan featured in the singles and doubles finals, finishing with one title and a second place in the event sponsored by BSNL. She was on court for 10 sets in the last two days, spread over four sessions to complete the semifinals and finals. At the other extreme, experienced professionals known for fighting qualities gave in to exhaustion whenever matches, played in furnace-like conditions due to absence of adequate floodlights facility at Indore Tennis Centre, stretched to three sets.

Hosting a women's circuit event in May in central India did very little by way of tennis promotion, with three of four vital matches meeting an abrupt end. Sheetal Goutham, seeded number two and capable of holding her own against any type of opposition, went down 0-6 in the singles semifinals decider against Shruti, a 19-year-old from Chandigarh studying Mass Communication at Punjab University. The second semifinal saw Liza Pereira, conqueror of top seed Sonal Phadke, trailing 0-4 in the third before losing 4-6 to eventual champion Isha Lakhani. The concluding day saw the Shruti/Sheetal pair pocket the women's doubles title after rivals Liza/Archana Venkataraman ended up losing last six games in a row.

In such circumstances, Shruti's feat of surviving back-to-back singles/doubles semifinals and finals respectively is a phenomenal achievement amidst tired limbs and disoriented minds. Ranked number seven in the singles, brute power as a weapon proved inadequate against versatile Isha Lakhani, going down 3-6, 4-6 in 70 minutes. One hour later, she teamed up with Sheetal and justified the top seed tag in doubles, winning the title 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-0. The day before had been as busy for the Chandigarh girl, torturing her body through another five sets before the singles/doubles semifinals could be completed. Incidentally, the hardest worker of the Indore leg also finished as the highest earner, $ 450 for singles runner-up spot plus $ 162.50 as doubles win share.

Necessity enhanced Shruti's capacity for self-punishment. Like other women professionals taking part in the $ 5000 circuit, the dollars on offer keep her tennis career going in the absence of personal sponsors. "Travelling abroad for an ITF circuit event is not possible for players like us with no sponsors, so we have to make the best of these circuit events held in India,'' said the Chandigarh player, who trains with the boys and has no personal coach. She refused to be drawn into any comment on the climatic conditions of Indore, except stating that physical and mental effort demanded from players was bound to affect the quality of play.

Isha Lakhani sized her up in the singles final, exposing the seventh seed's limitations with a masterly display of controlled strokeplay, using a left-hander's affinity for angles to keep the big-hitting Shruti on the edge. "I knew my time had come and was confident even if the final had gone to three sets,'' quipped the Mumbai-based sixth seed, adding: "Shruti had been playing many matches, that too tough ones in mornings and evenings to be able to maintain high levels.'' Except for a desperate second set surge by the challenger after being down 1-4, it was Isha all the way. The champion managed seven service breaks, making up for sluggish first serves, ending up with $ 650 and first ITF circuit title.

Isha's conquests en route to the final were seasoned Archana Venkataraman and the attacking Liza Pereira in the semifinals. In both matches, the Indore leg singles champion's penetrative strokeplay and ability to maintain the momentum shone through. "Isha is an all-round player and can pull you from all parts of the court,'' noted third seed Archana, while fifth seed Liza's exertions in a pre-quarterfinal upset over top seed Sonal Phadke took the toll against the sixth seed.

The Liza-Sonal marathon was played with an intensity unheard of on the Indian circuit. The two Mumbai girls, very familiar with each other's game, hammered away at the ball for two hours, 40 minutes before a winner could be separated. Liza's blistered feet felt as if on fire due to court temperatures at noon but didn't let it come in the way of unleashing forehand winners when clawing back from 1-4 down to 4-4 in the decider. Sonal ran hard to keep the ball in play long after the body had crossed exhaustion point, peppering the lines with backhands on the run but messed up vital points to end on the losing side.

The fifth seed was on a high after the tennis marathon ended 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(2) in her favour. "I don't remember the last time I had defeated her, so this win was special, considering the terrible heat. I have not been winning important matches in ITF events for the past four or five years though my father kept on pushing me. So in a way, his constant support played a big part in this win over Sonal,'' said Liza. "It was just that I got that extra shot in. Sonal likes to slow down, then suddenly change gear, I was prepared for it. I think she got stuck in the pace part and the match did not work out the way she had planned.''

Technical hiccups marked an otherwise well-organised first leg held on newly-laid ITC decoturf courts, especially absence of experienced line judges for an ITF event till the final, forcing hard-pressed women players to vent their ire on hapless chair umpires. ITF Chief Referee Sheetal Iyer expressed her helplessness after trying in vain to impress upon Indore organisers the need for inducting competent courtside personnel.

The results:

Singles: Final: 6-Isha Lakhani bt 7-Shruti Dhawan 6-3, 6-4; Semifinals: Isha bt 5-Liza Pereira 6-7(8), 6-1, 6-4; Shruti bt 2-Sheetal Goutham 5-7, 6-3, 6-0.

Doubles final: 1-Shruti/Sheetal bt 2-Liza/Archana. 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-0; Semifinals: 1-Shruti/Sheetal bt 4-Preeti Rao/Iciri Rai 7-5, 6-1; 2-Liza/Archana bt 3-Sonal Phadke/Ankita Bhambri 6-3, 6-3.