Megha Vakharia falls to Da Jung Hong in the final

KALYAN ASHOKKALYAN ASHOK

THE $ 10,000 Reliance ITF Women's Circuit Tennis Championship held in Bangalore ( February 17 to 22), would be remembered for Megha Vakharia's plucky performance. The 18-year old youngster from Mumbai, is regarded as one of the bright talents in women's tennis in the country. Never mind, the unseeded Megha, didn't win the title, but she won a good deal of fans, by the way she fought and made the final of this event, which was dominated to a good extent, just as the first championship at Chennai, by the foreign contenders.

Da Jung Hong played very consistently to triumph in the Bangalore leg of the ITF women's circuit .— Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

Megha's show was a satisfying one as she had been struggling to find form, after a mediocre season last year, which was marked by a lone $ 10,000 ITF triumph at Lagos, Nigeria. But back home she virtually drew a blank. The Chennai event too was a forgettable one, as she lost to the eventual winner Suchanan Viratprasert of Thailand in the first round. But on the Plexipav courts at the KSLTA, the southpaw Megha battled her way to the final, before going down to the fourth seed, Da Jung Hong of South Korea.

The 17-year-old Korean junior No.1, Hong won 6-4, 6-4 and there was nothing much to separate the two, except the level of consistency in the 75 minute title clash. The contest was absorbing in patches. Hong played with lot of sense as she countered an early onslaught from Megha, who attacked with zest after a tentative start. But once Hong found her rhythm, she controlled the pace of the tie from the back court. It was a tough going for Megha who was repeatedly caught on the wrong foot by her Korean rival, who kept drilling her groundstrokes with precision. Her steady returns also took care of Megha's reliable first serve. As she kept fumbling with her backhand, the pressure mounted on Megha who finally capitulated. Hong took the first set after being 1-3 down. In the second set, a confident Hong with her potent groundstrokes pinned Megha to the back court and simply outhit her.

With a little more focus and a steadier nerve, Megha could have pulled off a memorable maiden triumph at home. But she did regret that a bit, but consoled herself by claiming she had played a satisfying tournament, which should help her to do better in the future. Megha, who stands at five feet three inches, is certainly capable of doing that. Despite her small build, she has an all-round game and doesn't give up easily when the chips are down. The MSLTA trained girl's major handicap is lack of a regular coach and at this major transitional phase of her career, she badly needs one.

For Hong, it was a maiden ITF title and she had earlier made the final of $ 10,000 event in Bangkok last year.The victory also fetched Hong $ 1600 as prizemoney and she gained six ITF points while, Megha took $ 1000 and four points.

Earlier, three good wins set up Megha for the summit clash. She rallied from a match point down to beat Russian rival, Julia Vorobieva at 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 in the semi-finals. The Russian girl relied on her sole weapon, the big forehand and she rattled Megha firing away with it from all possible corners, before Megha, slowing down the pace controlled the match. After dropping the first set, Megha down 4-5 in the second, made a double fault on her serve at deuce. But she bounced back with a down the line winner and took the next two points to keep the serve and staged a fine recovery to get the measure of her rival. Hong, in the other semi-finals, simply outslugged her Uzbek rival, Akgul Amanmuradova 1-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-2. With her steady baseline game and her consistent returns, Hong had the last laugh on the hard hitting Amanmuradova, who lost the steam after blasting her way to the first set.

The quarter-finals saw some good action and Megha got the better of Montinee Tangphong in a three setter at 6-0, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4.

Megha Vakharia's show in the 110 minute tie was marked by her positive attitude and she matched it with an aggressive game. She served consistently throughout the match and made just one double fault and though she conceded a few points in the second and third sets with unforced errors, she had the ability to hit back at right moments with good mix of shots. She was a bit flustered in the mid match, when Tangphong kept her on the leash with deep groundstrokes, but Megha hung on, and won the battle of nerves in the decider.

Megha's biggest win came in the second round when she stunned the top seed, Rushmi Chakravarthi 6-4, 6-3. There has been a tendency with the 26-year-old Rushmi to play defensively when she is up against a much younger Indian rival and it came to the fore in this tie as Megha Vakharia launched a brilliant counter blitz after being down 1-4 in the first set. Rushmi, who was pretty free with her big forehand, went into a shell and kept slicing on the backhand and allowed Megha to dominate the match. That victory, was the springboard for Megha's big leap in the tournament.

The other Indian performances were nothing to write about. Sai Jayalakshmi, the third seed, was the only other Indian, apart from Megha, to figure in the last eight stage. Sai, one of the fluent strikers of the ball, has been plagued by health problems of late and she is still coping hard with a muscle injury in the rib area, which renders stroke making a relatively difficult proposition. Sai, who had her chances, simply couldn't convert them as she was mired in double faults ( she made 11) and went down to Julia Vorobieva ( 5-7, 2-6).

The other Indian challengers made their exits in the second round and they included Isha Lakhani, the Venkatraman sisters - Arthi and Archana, Geeta Manohar. For Sheetal Goutham and Iciri Rai, the two Bangalore girls, the event at home was a disappointing one as they made early exits.

Doubles provided the much needed cheer for the local fans, who were rooting for Megha's victory in the singles final. The top seeds, Rushmi Chakravarthi and Sai Jayalakshmi, who made the final at Chennai, beat the scratch pair, Natalia Dziamidzenka of Belarus and Maki Arai of Japan 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4) to bag the title.

The championship was originally scheduled to be played at Dharwad, but as the synthetic courts were not ready at the Dharwad District Tennis Association, the event was moved to Bangalore. But there was a bid by the organisers to conduct the tournament at the clay courts in Dharwad and a section of players, especially the foreigners, had reservations and subsequently the move was dropped. But by then, quite a few main draw players including the Chennai winner, Suchanan Viratprasert, had pulled out.

The results (All Indians unless specified. Prefix indicates seedings):

Singles (final): 4-Da Jung Hong (Kor) bt Megha Vakharia 6-4, 6-4. Semi-finals: Megha Vakharia bt Julia Vorobieva (Rus) 4-6, 7-5, 6-4; Da Jung Hong bt 5-Akgul Amanmuradova (Uzb ) 1-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-2. Quarter-finals: Megha Vakharia bt Montinee Tangphong (Tha) 6-0, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4; Julia Vorobieva ( Rus) bt 3-Sai Jayalakshmi 7-5, 6-2; Akgul Amanmuradova bt Elena Vesnina (Rus) 6-4, 6-3; Da Jung Hong bt 8-Wilawan Choptang (Tha) 3-6, 6-2, 7-5.

Doubles (final): 1-Sai Jayalakshmi & Rushmi Chakravarthi bt Maki Arai (Jpn) & Natalia Dziamidzenka (Blrs) 7-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-4). Semi-finals: Rushmi Chakravarthi & Sai Jayalakshmi bt 4-Shruti Dhawan & Sheetal Goutham 6-2, 6-2; Maki Arai & Natalia Dzimidzenka bt 2-Akgul Amanmuradova & Ivanna Israliova (Uzb) 7-5, 1-6, 6-4.