Kiernan's gamble pays off

DANIEL KIERNAN was on a voyage of self-discovery in the International Tennis Federation's Satellite Circuit, coming to grips with insights about himself before the curtain came down on the first leg.


Daniel Kiernan's determination saw him overcome all odds and claim his first Satellite title.-Pic. VIVEK BENDRE

DANIEL KIERNAN was on a voyage of self-discovery in the International Tennis Federation's Satellite Circuit, coming to grips with insights about himself before the curtain came down on the first leg. For a qualifier making a quantum jump to be crowned the singles champion, the 23-year-old Briton reaped more than tennis riches at Mumbai. "I have discovered here that I have a big heart, I didn't know I had this much of a fight in me. I thought I was finished three days ago, but somehow kept going.'' The rapport struck with Ajay Ramaswami also helped, the two bagging the doubles title.

The big-built Briton getting overwhelmed by Mumbai memories is understandable, viewed against the crazy experiences he went through. He went to three sets in a first round qualifier, coming back from the brink of defeat; then was made to look like a novice by India's Sandeep Kirtane in the main draw opening round before serving his way out of trouble when down 3-5 in the decider; rode the momentum to drill holes in Prakash Amritraj's defences when winning the semifinal. Indonesian Prima Simpatiaji boasted of a tight game till the final before coming apart against the qualifier who won 7-5, 7-6(4).

The stocky Kiernan looked out of place against leaner, fitter fellow pros, running out of breath in the heat. A huge backhand and a big serve were potent weapons on hardcourt, but survival appeared difficult in a $ 6250 ITF event without running power and racquet skills. However, the Briton's determination to stand his ground in the face of adversity saw him overcome the odds for his first Satellite title since turning professional in February. "I have always been a big guy, that is how I am despite working out as any other tennis pro here,'' the champion reacted to questions about his heavy frame, especially the flab around the waistline

The ITF Mumbai week was only his fifth tournament, following forays in the United States (where he studied marketing) and Europe where this relative newcomer found it difficult to find his feet. Turning to Satellite events in India in the hope of logging points against `weaker' opponents, he waded through the singles qualifying rounds as any other hopeful. Kiernan's gamble not only paid off ($ 812.50 for the singles triumph, equal share in $ 562.50 doubles prize money), the morale-boosting first leg win will ensure this well-built Briton is taken much more seriously next time around.

Kiernan's brutal ways with the ball worked most effectively against second seed Prakash in the semifinals. It was expected to be the qualifier's toughest match of the week, questioning his limited skills against an all-round player. "The standard is tough, even at this level. I guess the faster MSLTA courts helped, since I have a strong serve and was aware that my power would make returning a bit difficult for others,'' said the Briton, who paced himself to last out the match. "Earlier I used to go all out from the start and find myself exhausted later on. I avoided getting too uptight against Prakash at the start, since he was the better player. He had his chances,fortunately for me he couldn't convert them.''

The qualifier's serving reached a highpoint, eight aces in all highlighting the semifinal, including three thunderbolts one after another in a single game. He also put a check on Prakash's net-rushing gambit with backhand winners, almost walking into the shot and relying on power from his upper body to force the ball across and away. Kiernan's run would have ended in the first round itself against wily Sandeep Kirtane, a former Davis Cupper and current full-time coach. The champion had no clue as his 29-year-old rival, playing his first competitive game since the Hyderabad National Games team event, weaved a spell with a bewildering mix of sliced volleys, soft lobs and angled service returns.

Kiernan (left) and Ajay Ramaswami, who won the doubles crown.-Pic. VIVEK BENDRE

"Sandeep played well,'' confessed the Briton, understating the impact of an unintended coaching session which ended 6-2, 3-6, 7-6(3) in his favour. The seeds of Kiernan's doubles success lay in his decision to seek out collegemate Ajay Ramaswami. "I know Ajay since U.S. college days, so it was natural for us to team up in the doubles. Ajay played a big part in helping overcome adjustment problems on my first visit to Mumbai. I came here a week before the Satellite to train and get used to the heat,'' said the qualifier, revealing the pre-event preparation which went into the emergence of an unlikely champion.

Rohan Gajjar stunned top seed Sunil Kumar Sipaeya to turn the spotlight on himself at the quarterfinal stage, building on impressive victories earlier on. Five months on the American collegiate circuit, training on the University of Arkansas tennis squad, triggered amazing changes in this 19-year-old on a personal and tennis level. "I do not depend on others to get my things done,'' said the Mumbai youngster, emphasising the virtue of independence which comes with living on your own. "The University training has made me a fitter, better player,'' he said.

This can-do attitude found expression on court against Sunil Kumar, a devastating opponent on his day. "I played one great game each set, getting the break which made the difference,'' observed Rohan, revelling in flaunting his positive, confident self. "The U.S. training stint has improved my serve and groundstrokes,'' he added, both facets of the game now assets in his armoury, using height and reach to get on top of the ball each time for effective returns, imparting pace and power to leave the top seed at the receiving end.

The Mumbai lad continued in the same vein against Simpatiaji in the semifinals before failing to convert a setpoint 6-5, 40-30 up in the 12th to bow out in straight sets. None of the other 14 Indians in the singles main draw survived beyond the quarterfinal phase, even as a big-hearted Briton showed courage and opportunism to move from qualifier to champion. The Mumbai leg was sponsored and organised by Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association.

The results (Indians unless specified):

Singles final: Daniel Kiernan (Great Britain) bt Prima Simpatiaji (Indonesia) 7-5, 7-6 (4). Semifinals: D. Kiernan bt 2-Prakash Amritraj 6-2, 7-6 (4), P. Simpatiaji bt Rohan Gajjar 7-6 (4), 6-1.

Doubles final: D. Kiernan (Gbr)/Ajay Ramaswami bt Manoj Mahadevan/Rishi Sridhar 7-6 (2), 6-3. Semifinals: D. Kiernan/A. Ramaswami bt Hendri-Sushilo Pramano/Febi Widhiyanto (Indonesia) 6-4, 6-3; M. Mahadevan/R. Sridhar bt R. Gajjar/Saurabh Kohli 6-4, 0-6, 6-4.