It's Sania all the way

A. JOSEPH ANTONY

ATTACK at all costs seemed to be Sania Mirza's belief as she trampled on the top seeds to take the GVK-ITF women's circuit singles crown at the Lal Bahadur Stadium tennis complex in Hyderabad.

Sania Mirza, who won the singles title.-K. RAMESH BABU

Sania overcame the burly Akgul Amanmuradova 6-1, 6-2 in the final, subdued fifth seed Chin Bee Khoo 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 in the semifinals and accounted for tournament favourite Rushmi Chakravarthi 6-3, 6-1 in the last eight stage.

Rushmi, suffering from a shoulder strain and hampered by a hamstring injury, capitulated in just 40 minutes. The ace player however refused to make an issue of the ailments that afflicted her for at least two days preceding her exit.

Sania's wins in the subsequent rounds were more impressive. Down 4-6 in the first set against Khoo, Sania turned the tables by responding with top spin, which the Malaysian had used to devastating effect in clinching the first set.

Sania broke Khoo in the second game of the second set. After this the Indian girl cruised to victory without conceding a game on serve, at times even without giving up a point. For a 15-year-old, the focus and the desire to win was exceptional.

Recently married, Khoo seemed to tire. At 25, which many consider over the hill in tennis, Khoo, a graduate in computers, slowed down a bit, her gasps turning to groans as the games wore on.

Cheered by a partisan crowd and a horde of relatives and friends, Sania decimated the opposition. She packed off Ankita Bhambri, her doubles partner and close friend 6-1, 6-2.

Another striking aspect of the Hyderabad lass was the ability to raise her game a notch or two whenever required. At times, she appeared in a hurry to finish off the point. "I try not to stretch the point," she said of her seemingly hurried style.

Sania's performance peaked in the final, her display showing growing evidence that she could do no wrong. The diagonal returns or the down-the-line winners were near perfect. In the early rounds, the first serve was a bit of a problem, but that weakness was eliminated as the event progressed.

Her growing confidence saw her unleash the occasional ace that brooked no reply. When the first serve failed, the second serve was steeped in spin or sliced. Her triumph lay perhaps in keeping the exchanges short, not expending energy needlessly, and her unbridled aggression.

An 11th standard student of Nasar School, Sania's sheer speed came as a refreshing change from other events for women, where the plodding pace is a spectator's nightmare. Her exploits before her home crowd, and parents Imran and Nasima, found the stands packed during the semifinals and the final, something unheard of earlier.

Another qualifier to wreak havoc with the rankings was Amanmuradova. The nearly six-foot Uzbek's serves came chest or head high. Her sliced spin had stopped second seed Sai Jayalakshmy 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) in the last four stage and halted another ambitious aspirant, Geeta Manohar. Geeta was a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 winner over third seed Radhika Tulpule in the prequarter-finals.

Amanmuradova, a student of Tashkent State University of Economics, seemed a little slow, taking time to cover the court or ignoring placements when it involved some running. Nonetheless it was a noteworthy performance, considering that it was only her second ITF tourney.

"I was a little exhausted," she said after losing in the final. "The food was a little spicy and it affected my stomach a bit," she said. Accepting her $1000 runner-up cheque, she thanked her mom, who faithfully followed her to every match and venue, keenly watching her ward's achievements. The parent had enough to be proud of.

Sania, who took the $1600 winner's cheque, acknowledged the support of G.V. Krishna Reddy, Chairman, GVK group of industries, her parents and well-wishers. It was certainly a heady experience to emerge winner in Hyderabad.

Even on the doubles front, there were upsets galore. Wilawan Choptang of Thailand and Chin-Bee Khoo staged a coup, upstaging the fancied pair of Rushmi Chakravarthi and Sai Jayalakshmy. Seeded second, the duo later got the better of India's Shruti Dhawan and Sheetal Goutham, ranked third, in the final, 6-2, 6-2.

The rise of the likes of Sania, Akgul and Geeta signals the arrival of a new era in women's tennis, where young blood leaves seasoned campaigners out of breath. This was symbolised by the fiercely attacking forehand of Sania, that flogged opponents into submission. The pace of her games was fast and furious, her returns flat and firm.

While work on the venue was incomplete, the seven-layered cushioned plexi-pave courts were a boon to both players and organisers alike. Incessant rain on the penultimate day did not disrupt the programme, and the action resumed 45 minutes after the drizzle had stopped.

As former player S.P. Misra observed, "Gone are the days of green grass that was the hallmark of 'lawn' tennis. Synthetic surfaces are here to stay and in them lies the future."

Interestingly, right after Sania's win over Rushmi Chakravarthi, Misra had predicted her victory over Khoo. Venturing even further, he said, the title would be hers. Sure enough, Sania lived up to his hopes, clinching the title in memorable fashion.

The conduct of the championship was top class, with no complaint from any quarter. Players were all praise for the facilities. As was the aim of the Andhra Pradesh Lawn Tennis Association officials prior to the event, the participants would have more than a thing or two to remember of their stay in Hyderabad.

The results:

Singles (final): Sania Mirza (Ind) bt Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb) 6-1, 6-2. semi-finals: Sania Mirza bt Chin Be Khoo (Mal) 4-6, 6-1, 6-1; Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb) bt Sai Jayalakshmy (Ind) 6-4, 7-6 (7-5).

Doubles (final): Chin Bee Khoo (Mal) and Wilawan Choptang (Thai) bt Shruti Dhawan and Sheetal Goutham (Ind) 6-2, 6-2. semi-finals: Chin Bee Khoo and Wilawan Choptang bt Ankita Bhambri and Sania Mirza (Ind) 6-4, 7-6 (7-0); Shruti Dhawan and Sheetal Goutham (Ind) bt Rushmi Chakravarthi and Sai Jayalakshmy (Ind) 6-2, 7-5.