Local talent to the fore

S. Prateek (left), who won both the U-18 singles and doubles titles in the championship Series at the Wearhouse Century Club in Bangalore, seen with his partner Manu Bajpal and the girls' U-18 winner Asha Nandakumar (right).-Pic. V. SREENIVASA MURTHY S. Prateek (left), who won both the U-18 singles and doubles titles in the championship Series at the Wearhouse Century Club in Bangalore, seen with his partner Manu Bajpal and the girls' U-18 winner Asha Nandakumar (right).

A month long junior tennis extravaganza marked the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association's calendar in May-June. As many as five AITA tournaments, under the new regulations, were conducted in Karnataka, with Bangalore hosting four events and Mysore one.

The AITA changed the pattern of its junior domestic programme as of January 1, 2003 and did away with the zonal and masters events to encourage talent in the under-18 ranks, where there were only few tournaments in the past. The new set of series, called the Talent Series, Championship Series, Super Series and National Series, has evoked good response from the youngsters all over the country.

The series in Karnataka saw the local talent to the fore. G. Arjun, was easily the outstanding player in the boys' under-18 section, while it was Sujith Sachidanand who dominated the under-14 section. Among girls, Karnataka's Akshita B. Raj, Asha Nandakumar, S. Preethi and Vandana Murali of Tamil Nadu, called the shots.

The first event was the Talent Series hosted by the one of the oldest clubs in the city, Malleswaram Association. The organisers split the programme, by conducting under-18 section matches on the synthetic surface at the KSLTA Stadium and under-14 events on the clay courts in Malleswaram Association. It was an all-Karnataka final in the under-18 boys' section, as G. Arjun made short work of an injured Manu Bajpai at 6-1-, 6-2. Bajpai was nursing a sore shoulder and he could do little against a hard-hitting Arjun. In the under-18 girls' final, Pooja Shetty overcame a series of unforced errors to beat another Banglorean, Sanjana Gopal 6-0, 6-4. While Akshita B. Raj romped home in the under-14 girls' section, beating Sai Poojitha 6-0, 6-4, Sujith Sachidanand, who plays solidly from the baseline, crushed another Karnataka lad, Kaustab Inamdar at 6-1, 6-2 in the under-14 boys' event.

The next stop was the Championship Series at the Wearhouse-Century Club, which was confined to under-18 ranks. S. Prateek from Mysore claimed a double, winning both the boys' under-18 singles and doubles (partnering Manu Bajpai).

Prateek overcame Tamil Nadu's Vijay Sundar Prashanth in a three-setter at 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. Playing tenaciously from the backcourt, he came back after being a set down to beat the Tamil Nadu youngster, who squandered a few good openings in the second set. Later, Prateek combined with Manu Bajpai in the doubles, and the Karnataka pair beat the Tamil Nadu duo, M. Vinod and Vijay Sundar Prashanth 6-4, 6-4.

In the girls' section, the fancied Vandana Murali was stunned by Varsha Shivashankar in the semi-finals, but Varsha found herself at the receiving end in the final against Asha Nandakumar. After a patchy display in the first set, Asha coasted to an easy win in the second.

The third event was the Super Series, conducted at Sadhashivanagar Club. It certainly had a much better standard and some of the matches in the decisive phase were engrossing.

The title honours in the boys' under-18 section went to Siddarth Patil. The Pune youngster packed a lot more variation than his big hitting rival Jeevan Nedunchezian, the top seed, and won the lopsided contest 6-3, 6-2. Earlier in the semi-finals, Patil stopped S. Prateeek in a hard-fought three setter at 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 6-2.

S. Preethi of Tamil Nadu has the potential to make a mark in the senior ranks, provided she plays a lot more on the circuit. With her strong forehand and good reflexes, she proved more than a match to the rest of the field. After beating Asha Nandakumar in a well-contested semi-final, Preethi easily beat Meghana Paritala of Andhra Pradesh 6-3, 6-2 in the final.

In the under-14 section, Sujith Sachidanand battled to a 6-4, 7-5 win over V. Vignesh of Tamil Nadu. Sujith was down 1-3 in the second set, but rallied well. Akshita B. Raj's bid for a second title was dashed by Mysore girl, V. Poojashree, who won 6-1, 6-3.

The fourth event of the tour in Bangalore was the Talent Series at the KIMS courts, conducted by the KIMS Tennis Academy. The host had a lot to cheer as the KIMS trainee, Govind Ram Mohan, took the boys' under-18 singles title with a facile 6-3, 6-3 win over N. Kiran Kumar. Sujith Sachidanand claimed his third title, beating Kaustab Inamdar 7-5, 6-2.

It was a memorable outing for Nike Bhupathi Tennis Village trainee, Akshita B. Raj, who won both the girls' under-14 and under-18 titles. She beat State-mate Likitha Devaraj 6-2, 6-0 in the under-14 final and later ousted Priya Pachkawde of Maharashtra 6-2, 6-0 in the under-18 singles final.

The tour wound up in Mysore, with a Championship Series for the under-18 players, which was hosted by the Vontikoppal Club. Local girl Chitrashanthi Rajur created a flutter by storming into the final, beating quite a few seeded players, including Asha Nandakumar, who had won a title in Bangalore.

Chitrashanthi held her own against Vandana Murali of Tamil Nadu, giving the Chennai girl anxious moments. But Vandana had to blame herself for her predicament in the first set as she literally gifted points with an uninspiring play. But once she took the set on an extended tie-breaker at 9-7, Vandana found her bearings as she tightened her game and, playing strongly on both flanks, out-hit Chitrashanthi in the second set to bag the title.

Vandana made her triumph doubly sweet, partnering Shraddha Lodha of Maharashtra. The duo beat Asha Nandakumar (Karnataka) and Priya Pachkawde (Maharashtra) 6-1, 6-3.

The boys' section too had some interesting ties and the final saw G. Arjun taking on his Karnataka team-mate and doubles partner, N. Kiran Kumar, who was making his second successive final of the tour. Both youngsters have been knocking at the ITF senior circuit doors, often figuring in the qualifying rounds. Arjun is a crafty customer and like his sister, Sheetal, who is among the top senior women players in the country, he is tenacious to the core. He gave nothing away, though his serve lacked the bite in the final against Kiran Kumar.

Kiran lacked a proper game plan and after taking the first set at 6-4, he tried to step up the pace and hit his way out of trouble but made unforced errors in the process and let Arjun off the hook in the second set. He squandered three break points with the scores tied at 4-all. Arjun saved that game and went to win the set in a tie-breaker 7-6 (7-3). There was a dramatic shift in his game and fortunes in the decider as he outplayed Kiran in the decider.

A couple of other youngsters also made their presence felt at Mysore. The 15-year-old Alan Gomes of Ahmedabad stunned the top seed, S. Prateek in the quarter-finals, but went down to Arjun in the semi-finals. Southpaw Rohan Gide, who made the last four, also holds a lot of promise. Had there been a fair play award, it would have surely gone to Nishendran of Sri Lanka. The Colombo schoolboy made his exit after a controversial line call upset his recovery against Rohan Gide in the quarter-finals but he took it sportingly.

A heavy downpour washed out the boys' doubles final and both the finalists, G. Arjun and Kiran Kumar and their opponents, S. Prateek and Manu Bajpai, were declared as joint winners. Though AITA's new concept is refreshing, the tour schedule gives little breathing time to players and organisers as the main draw is played over four days only. The qualifying ties are played on Monday and Tuesday with the main draw scheduled from Wednesday to Saturday. In the early stages of the main draw, a player who has entered both the under-14 and under-18 sections, ends up playing as many as four ties in a day which is indeed strenuous. If AITA keeps the qualifying rounds to the preceding week's Saturday and Sunday and begins the main draw on Monday, like in the ITF men's event programme, the pressure could be reduced on the players.

The results (all finals): Talent Series:

Boys (singles): Under-18: G. Arjun (Kar) bt Manu Bajpai (Kar) 6-1, 6-2. Under-14: Sujith Sachidanand (Kar) bt Kaustab Inamdar (Kar) 6-1, 6-2.

Girls (singles): Under-18: Pooja Shetty (Kar) bt Sanjana Gopal (Kar) 6-4, 6-0. Under-14: Akshita B. Raj (Kar) bt Sai Poojitha (AP) 6-0, 6-4.

Championship Series:

Boys (singles): Under-18: S. Prateek (Kar) bt Vijay Sundar Prashanth (TN) 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. Doubles: S. Prateek & Manu Bajpai (Kar) bt M. Vinod & Vijay Sundar Prashanth (TN) 6-4, 6-4.

Girls (singles): Under-18: Asha Nandakumar (Kar) bt Varsha Shivashankar (Kar) 7-5, 6-3.

Super Series:

Boys (singles): Under-18: Siddarth Patil (Mah) bt Jeevan Nedunchezian (TN) 6-3, 6-2. Under-14: Sujith Sachidanand bt V. Vignesh (TN) 6-4, 7-5.

Girls (singles): Under-18: S. Preethi (TN) bt Meghana Paritala (AP) 6-3, 6-2. Under-14: V. Poojashree (Kar) bt Akshita B. Raj (Kar) 6-1, 6-3.

Talent Series:

Boys (singles): Under-18: Govind Rammohan (Kar) bt N. Kiran Kumar (Kar) 6-3, 6-3. Under-14: Sujith Sachidanand bt Kaustab Inamdar 7-5, 6-2.

Girls (singles): Under-18: Akshita B. Raj bt Priya Pachkawde (Mah) 6-2, 6-0. Under-14: Akshita B. Raj bt Likitha Devaraj (Mah) 6-2, 6-0.

Championship Series (Mysore):

Boys (singles): Under-18: G. Arjun bt N. Kiran Kumar 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3.

Girls (singles): Under-18: Vandana Murali (TN) bt M. R. Chirashanthi (Kar) 7-6 (9-7), 6-3. Doubles: Shraddha Lodha (Mah) & Vandana Murali bt Asha Nandakumar & Priya Pachkawde 6-1, 6-3.

Kalyan Ashok