One step up

Poojashree had won a similar tournament in Pakistan last November, and had reached the final of another in Kazakhstan.-PICS: V.V. KRISHNAN

Poojashree Venkatesh held her nerve to win her first international title in home conditions, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

For long, Poojashree Venkatesh was dubbed the uncut diamond with considerable potential. Even now, it is clear that if she gets comfortable with her height on a tennis court and uses her reach to the maximum advantage, the 19-year-old can be a force to reckon with in women’s circuit.

Living up to her talent for once Poojashree showcased a positive approach and fought till the last rally, unfazed by the quality of opposition or the flow of the contest.

The towering Poojashree, who has worked on her fitness and coordination in recent months, won the singles and doubles titles in the $10,000 ITF women’s tournament in New Delhi. She had won a similar tournament in Pakistan last November, and had reached the final of another in Kazakhstan. Winning at home was special, and she was understandably thrilled. More so, as the double crown came after two tough weeks in Kazakhstan, where she was unceremoniously dumped twice in the first round of back-to-back tournaments.

Every time an opponent came up with a drop shot during the tournament in Delhi, to expose the limitations of her forward movement, coach Enrico Piperno, the Indian Fed Cup captain, watching the action, would grimace. “She is so slow,” he would complain.

Having watched Sania Mirza from close quarters, Piperno knows a thing or two about Indian women’s tennis. But, he too had to revise his opinion on Poojashree. “She knows how to win matches, which cannot be said about most of the Indian girls,” observed Piperno, in admiration of her gutsy approach.

Poojashree pulled off a three-set victory over the fifth-seeded Sanaa Bhambri and changed the current and the flow of the tide against fourth-seeded Isha Lakhani in the semifinals, winning another nail-biter.

Against the all-round game of top-seeded Emily Webley-Smith of Britain, who had won a double crown the previous week, it could have been a different story, though.

Poojashree, however, answered the question in a telling fashion on a humid afternoon after a four-hour rain delay, as she saved three set points in the opener to eventually prevail over the 310th ranked Emily in straight sets, 7-6 (10-8), 6-2.

Right from handling a tricky situation at 4-4 in the decisive third set against Rishika Sunkara in the first round — which she won 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 — to tackling the strong game of Emily, Poojashree showed a steely resolve to fight it out, despite the constraints in her game. This girl has the heart for a fight and she does not flinch.

She keeps it simple and fights for every point. As the match progresses, her serve gets stronger, acting as a buffer against her sloppy court coverage.

“I’m still trying to work on my first serves. Once it becomes consistently good, we will work on the second serve. I serve much better in doubles. It is basically a confidence thing,” she says.

A busy schedule has prevented the Mysore girl from fine tuning her game. But, an earlier stint at the Nick Bollettieri centre has helped her a lot, and plans are on for scheduling training sessions with the likes of Bob Brett or Tony Roche to further sharpen her skills.

Top-seeded Emily Webley faltered at the final hurdle.-

“I have been impressed ever since I saw her first. She has the right physique for a tennis player, which is rare for Indian girls.

“She is dedicated and is improving fast,” says the former Davis Cup captain Jaidip Mukerjea, who has been streamlining her preparation for the Commonwealth Games.

Immediately after, Poojashree flew to Thailand to compete in three similar tournaments and has planned to play a few Challengers in order to gauge her progress.

However, there is no doubt that Poojashree needs a lot of training to sharpen her game. She does whip the forehand pretty smart, but the bent elbow does not let her unleash the shot with the maximum possible sting. There are certain inherent flaws in her technique that need to be corrected quickly for a smooth transition to the next level.

Poojashree promises a whole-hearted effort, but if she gets the right guidance and support, Indian women’s tennis will have somebody to look up to, apart from Sania Mirza.