Nitin Kirtane dashes the hopes of local hero

A. JOSEPH ANTONY

Nitin Kirtane, the men's singles gold winner.-M. MOORTHY

The 4000-plus crowd at the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh (SAAP) tennis complex centre court was at its raucous best, rooting for son-of-the-soil Vishal Punna as he battled against Nitin Kirtane on a pleasant evening.

Few would have given Punna a second look, even after the games began. His prequarter-final defeat of Vijay Kannan was ascribed to the latter's exhaustion, having played doubles and singles, the day before. When he overcame C.D. Ajay, some reluctantly agreed the youngster has promise.

In the semi-final, he subdued Chatwinder Singh, coming back from a set down and in a manner that would have made many sit up and take notice. In the showdown for the crown, few would have expected Punna to lose 3-6, 6-4, 6-7 (4-7).

The first set was clinched by Kirtane without much sweat as he broke Punna in the third and ninth games. Picking gaps on Vishal's court, Kirtane called the shots from the net.

In the next, Vishal's big serves put the top seed on the backfoot as the latter began to tire visibly. Where the seasoned campaigner from Pune scored over his 19-year old rival was on the overhead lobs, several of which Punna either misjudged or squandered when he got to the ball.

With the chips down and trailing 1-3, Kirtane never gave up. Down 2-4 and serving in the seventh, he flung his racquet in frustration over a lost point. Subsequently, a lucky graze of the net saw the ball trickle into Punna's court, which fetched Kirtane the point and the game.

Vishal held his own in the next, climbing up 5-3. Lesser players would have let nerves get the better of them, but not Kirtane, who kept his cool, clinching the crucial ninth game without conceding a point.

Poised at the very threshold of victory, Punna's strongpoint, the backhand volley, deserted him, several of them going wayward. His sliced returns slithered into the net. When that all-important set went into tie-break, Kirtane, an old hand of many such situations, must have really thanked his stars.

Sania Mirza, the women's singles champion.-M. MOORTHY

The overanxious Punna was unequal to the task, his lack of high-level experience proving to be a major handicap. With victory within shaking hands distance, his errors piled up, as Kirtane hung on gamely. The slide culminated with a return hitting the net.

Kirtane was overjoyed when the title became his. Tearing his sweat-soaked shirt, he pumped his fist at the crowd that had been highly partial to Punna. There was much elation in the Maharashtra camp, coach and former National champion Nandan Bal coming on to court. Another teammate chaired Kirtane around the court. This victory was perhaps consolation for the western side that received a pasting earlier on the distaff side.

The women's final was an all-Andhra affair, as Sania Mirza met Manisha Malhotra. A fruit-punch had led to food-poisoning and Malhotra was only a pale shadow of her real self, right from the quarter-finals onwards.

In the last eight encounter against Maharashtra's Radhika Tulpule, Manisha was down 2-5, before the latter equalised and won on tie-break. Tulpule could not have got a better opportunity to advance to the semis. Her erratic returns contributed more to her defeat than winners from the ailing Malhotra.

In the semis, against Archana Venkatraman, Manisha lost the first set 1-6. Often she stumbled on court, apparently in a daze. A.P. physio Sunil Dutt said she had been subsisting only on liquids, throwing up anything solid. In the extended second set, Manisha levelled the contest winning 7-5.

Manisha meant business in the decider, charged up perhaps by the presence of her dentist dad in the stands. She gave it her all, claiming the match 6-4 and falling on to the plexipave surface in sheer exhaustion on a task well accomplished.

Sania was like a marauding elephant, trampling all competition that came her way. Against her in the final, Manisha had little left in her by way of resistance. Now and then she reached out for a return and rarely got to it. She caved in meekly 0-6, 0-6.

Sania's blistering serve and flaying forehand was very much in evidence, despite being only about 70 % fit. Fresh from winning the Asian junior title in Delhi, she showed no signs of fatigue — only a steely resolve to settle for nothing less than the crown.

Regardless of the opponents, she kept the exchanges short, with Sania getting the better of them, most of the time. The Hyderabad lass was the apple of the eye of the packed stands that cheered her on. After every match, writing pads were thrust at her for autographs, showing signs of growing up to be a minor celebrity of sorts.

Shortly after the open singles began, four of the heavy-weights made their exits — defending champs Ajay Ramaswamy and Rushmi Chakravarthy; men's second seed Vijay Kannan and women's third seed Sai Jayalakshmi.

In the team championships finals, Delhi men subdued Tamil Nadu while the home side's women beat Karnataka.

The results (all finals):

Men's singles: Nitin Kirtane (Mah) bt Vishal Punna (AP) 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4). Bronze: Chatwinder Singh (Cha) and Vinod Sridhar (TN).

Doubles: Nitin Kirtane/Sandeep Kirtane (Mah) bt Vijay Kannan/Kamala Kannan (TN) 7-5, 6-4. Bronze: Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh.

Women's singles: Sania Mirza (AP) bt Manisha Malhotra (AP) 6-0, 6-0.

Doubles: Rushmi Chakravarthy/Sai Jayalakshmi (TN) bt Radhika Tulpule/Sonal Phadke (Mah) 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Bronze: Delhi, Bengal.

Mixed doubles: Vishal Uppal/Ankita Bhambri (Del) bt Vijay Kannan/Rushmi Chakravarthy (TN) 7-6 (7-5), 6-1.