Memorable double for Carraz

"BANGALORE, will forever remain in my heart'', said a jubilant Gregory Carraz.

KALYAN ASHOK

"BANGALORE, will forever remain in my heart'', said a jubilant Gregory Carraz. Such an emotional statement from a tour hardened pro was surely not out of place, for, the affable Frenchman from Paris, ranked 151 on the ATP list, won a memorable double in the $25,000 Indian Oil servo ATP Challenger championship held at the KSLTA Stadium, Bangalore from April 21 to 26. The second seeded Frenchman won the singles crown beating the eighth seed, Gilles Elseneer of Belgium 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) in the 128-minute final and later teamed up with compatriot, Rodolphe Cadart to claim the doubles title as well.

Gregory Carraz with an impeccable all court play won the singles title.-- Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

The victory also fetched Carraz 50 points in singles and 25 in doubles and also an overall winner's purse of $4,375. He aptly observed : "more than money what mattered was the satisfaction of winning a Challenger after a decade long drought" and it certainly put more gas in Carraz's drive to the top. He was sidelined from the circuit with an injury eight months ago. It was a tall and hard climb. He made it with grit and hard work, and managed to reach No.124 spot early this year which came down to 151 before the Bangalore event and the win here is sure to push him further up the ladder.

The French six footer, is a good serve and volley player. He plays aggressively and has a strong return of serve. Sometimes the first serve is faulty and in all the matches, he had his quota of double faults, which he compensated with his strong second serve. "My serve has been my strength as well as weakness but I never compromised on it,'' said Carraz.

The Bangalore event, in fact, was his second Challenger final. Carraz made one last November in Milan, where he lost in a tie-breaker in the decider to Croatian Mario Ancich. That bitter memory lingered with Carraz till the Bangalore event, where he exorcised it with a clinical display against Elseneer. "I was a bit worried when I blew three break points, in the first game of the second set and memories of Milan came back to me and I am glad I pulled through'', said Carraz, who became a front runner in the championship after the early exit of the top seed, Noam Okum of Israel.

The eighth seeded Belgian, Elseneer had the big serve and he showed his class at the net, and came up with some great winners, especially in the second set, but against an impeccable all court play of his rival, Elseneer's challenge simply faded after some mid match sparks.

For Carraz, who sweetly times his shots, a single break in the first set (seventh game), proved a decisive one and he held on, giving very little chance for Elseneer to get back. He won it 6-4 and in the first game of the second set, he had Elseneer, pinned down at 0-40 on his serve, but Carraz simply blew those break points and found himself in trouble for the first time in the match.

Gilles Elseneer faded out after some mid-match sparks in the final. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

Elseneer was hitting the returns with power and was quite formidable at the net.With Carraz dithering with the first serve, the second set became an even contest till it slipped into the tie-breaker. 0-2 down with a double fault, Carraz quickly steadied himself and grabbed the next five points in- a-row for a 5-2 lead. Elseneer made a last ditch stand, serving strongly, and cut the gap to 4-5, before Carraz put a quick end to that belated revival and took the set 7-6 (7-4) and the title.

En route to the final, Elseneer knocked out the mercurial fourth seed, Ivo Heuberger of Switzerland, who was close to the top 100 a few months ago. Heuberger, who survived two close encounters against Vishal Uppal and Rohan Bopanna, earlier in the tournament, ran out of luck and fell 3-6, 6-1, 3-6.

Carraz stopped the Indian Davis Cupper, Harsh Mankad (a wild card) in two tie-break sets 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (8-6). It was a heart-breaking end to Harsh's glorious run in the championship and the 23-year-old Mumbaikar became the second Indian after Leander Paes, to have made such an impact on the Challenger stage.

Such a prospect looked remote at the outset as Harsh was drawn in the first round against the third seeded Jean Francois Bachlot of France but Harsh ranked 461, played superbly all through his rounds till he met his match in Carraz.

The Indian truly kept stride with the big serving Frenchman. Harsh returned well and showed the right focus to put the pressure on his rival, but he couldn't quite control the pace of the tie, which at one time, tilted towards him. In the first set, Harsh stroking freely broke Carraz in the third game and he failed to sustain that momentum dropping his own serve in the fourth and the set headed for a tie- break finish. Carraz won that without much fight.

In the second set, Harsh had his best chance when he had the Frenchman groping in the dark with three break points against him, but Carraz came up serving big on the second and Mankad, lacking control made hash of his returns and lost the chance to break him. The story repeated again in the eighth game also. Harsh, having lost out on those chances, had the uphill task of saving the match in the tie-breaker. Carraz went up 6-2 in the tie-breaker, before Harsh made it six all. Harsh then punched out a return and set Carraz on the match point and the Frenchman aced his way to the final.

For Harsh Mankad, it was a highly satisfying Challenger and for the first time in his career, had made the semi-finals and in the process, he is now right outside the 400 ranking. Harsh Mankad truly deserved it and he played with such positive frame of mind and looked fitter and sharper with every outing. He had worked hard on his service returns before coming into the event and it really showed.

Harsh was able to frustrate some big servers en route to the semis. He halted Fred Hemmes (Jr) of Netherlands in the quarter-finals (6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-3), Dmitry Vlasov of Russia in the pre-quarter-finals (6-3, 7-5) and Jean Francois Bachelot of France ( 6-3, 6-4) in the first round.

"Overall, it has been a good event and I had worked on my strokes, especially the returns and I did have chances against Carraz, but he came up with some good second serves and I made unforced errors and at this level, it is difficult to hang on when you make mistakes. But never mind, it has given my game a good thrust and I hope to do well in the Challengers, now that I know I can do it'', said Harsh Mankad.

Besides Harsh, there was also a plucky show from Vijay Kannan. He came in as a lucky loser. Ranked 508th, the Chennai player knocked out the 181-ranked sixth seed, Bjorn Rehnquist 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 before falling to Fred Hemmes Jr. in the second round. Hemmes had earlier beaten him in the final qualifying round.

The doubles champions — Gregory Carraz (left) and Rodolphe Cadart. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

The 19-year-old Prakash Amritraj crashed to an early defeat (1-6, 3-6) against Bulgarian qualifier, Tudor Enev while the two other Indian wild cards, Rohan Bopanna and Vishal Uppal perished against the fourth seed Ivo Heuberger. Both were poised for victory,but the Swiss, was let off the hook. Heuberger won 3-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-2) in the first round against Uppal, who did raise visions of an upset. In the decider, in fact, Uppal had the match up for grabs leading 4-2 and 40-1, before Heuberger launched counter assault to turn the tide in his favour.

A similar fate awaited Rohan Bopanna, the highest ranked Indian in the fray at 348. Rohan played in his customary slam-bang manner, racing away to a 6-1 win in the first set and after Heuberger took the second set in a tie-breaker, the Indian No. 1 who was firing on all cylinders, was up at 4-1 in the decider. But once he dropped the serve in the seventh, it was a totally down the hill slide for Rohan, whose spate of unforced errors, simply offset his big serve and he tumbled to an unexpected defeat at 5-7. "Somewhere down the line, I lost the focus and too many mistakes crept in. The defeat only reinforces my belief that I need to consistently play well to make an impact'', said a dismayed Rohan.

In the doubles, Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amrirtaj, who received a wild card, did well to reach the semi-finals, before being stopped by the champion French pair, Rodolphe Cadart and Gregory Carraz, who won 7-6 (11-9), 6-1. Carraz and Cadart went on to win the title beating Yves Allegro (Switzerland) and Jean Francois Bachelot (France) in the final at 6-4,6-4.

On the whole, the Indians can look back with some pride that they justified the wild cards. They are surely gaining in confidence and now show the self-belief that they can perform at a higher plane.

They got a word of praise from the champion, Carraz. He said "They (the Indians) can be dangerous and that guy, Harsh is truly world class despite his short build and he fights for every point and that's what really counts here''.

The results (prefix indicate seedings):

Singles final: 2-Gregory Carraz (Fra) bt 8-Gilles Elseneer (Bel) 6-4, 7-6 (7-4). Semi-finals: Gregory Carraz bt Harsh Mankad (Ind ) 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (8-6); G. Elseneer bt 4-Ivo Heuberger (Swi) 6-3, 1-6, 6-3. Quarter-finals: Harsh Mankad bt Fred Hemmes Jr (Ned) 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 6-3; Gregory Carraz bt Peter Wessels (Ned ) 6-2, 6-3; Ivo Heuberger bt Louis Vosloo (RSA) 6-3,6-1; G. Elseneer bt Yves Allegro (Swi) 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

Doubles: Rodolphe Cadart & Gregory Carraz (Fra) bt Yves Allegro & Jean Francois Bachelot (Fra) 6-4, 6-4. Semi-finals: Cadart & Carraz bt Prakash Amritraj & Rohan Bopanna 7-6 (11-9), 6-1; Allegro & Bachelot bt Noam Okum ( Isr) & Arvind Parmar (GBR) 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (7-5).