Perseverance pays off

K. C. VIJAYA KUMAR

"WHEN I get onto the court... trust me, the sun will be out," he said with a smile.

Vishaal Uppal, who won the ITF Masters title in Bangalore.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The warmth that resonated in those words somehow did not fit in. A perpetual ice pack on his right shoulder off court and a grimace during endless tie-breakers on court never hinted at any adulation for the sun's extreme histrionics. More so after he had slumped with dehydration in the ITF Satellite tournament at Visakhapatnam.

However, unseeded Vishaal Uppal ran in, blew a kiss to the skies, adjusted his cap, wiped the sweat off his forehead and served an ace past a bedazzled Vijay Kannan.

It was that kind of day when a player wakes up with rainbows in his eyes. And when Vishaal Uppal threw his hands heavenwards after clinching the Indian Oil Servo ITF Masters tournament singles title at the KSLTA courts, perseverance got a fresh chapter.

Vishaal was up against an upbeat Vijay Kannan, the sixth seed, in the final. Vijay was the last seeded player to survive in a tournament which had proved to be the Waterloo for the favourites. However, Vishaal raced past Vijay towards the winner's stand with a fervour that surfaces in Indian sport only when Leander Paes wraps his soul with the Tricolour for the Davis Cup.

"I stuck it out," Vishaal said with a smile. It sounded easy. Especially with an 'It's my turn' scribbled across his T-shirt. But it was not a cakewalk. His 7-6 (11-9), 6-4 victory against Vijay Kannan in the final can never gloss over the finesse or the better first serve percentage of his rival. However, Vishaal held the key to success close to his heart. Perhaps it was a key that had an 'I-can-do-it' embossed in big bold letters.

Vijay Kannan lost just five points on his serve in the first set. His groundstrokes and backhand returns left Vishaal gearing up his limbs for another tie-breaker. And alarm bells buzzed around as Vishaal stared at break-point in his opening service game of the first set. However, he survived two more breakpoints and the tie-breaker while dominating at the net.

"Vishaal played the big points better," said Vijay. However, Vijay did spring a few surprises with his lobs that forced Vishaal to rethink his volleying plans. The first set drama was sadly missing in the second as Vijay looked as though he would sit and have popcorn rather than slug it out with a rival high on adrenaline.

Vishaal had earlier scalped second-seeded Mustafa Ghouse in the semi-finals. It was a match where Mustafa seemed too keen to have the last shot while Vishaal was content to dictate the game's pace, mixing up his drops and volleys. Vishaal's strategy paid off and crystallised his dream of bagging his maiden ITF Satellite singles title. Vishaal had earlier demolished Israel's Eliran Dooyev, the fourth seed, in the quarter-finals.

Vijay Kannan's time-is-but-a-pause tenor was a contrast to Vishaal's fasten-your-seat-belts rush. Vijay nearly pressed the eject-button against Israel's Tomer Suissa in the semi-finals. But in a match where the Israeli hammered the ball with a world-is-against-me grudge, it was Vijay's subtlety that lowered the final sword. He had earlier upset third-seed Sandeep Kirtane.

Sandeep's cousin and top-seed Nitin Kirtane read the fine print of the law of averages rather late as he succumbed to Tomer Suissa in the second round. "I had an off day," said Nitin after the defeat.

Nitin, however, had every reason to smile on the penultimate day of the tournament as he combined well with Vishaal to clinch the doubles title. In the final, the top-seeds defeated the second-seeds Mustafa Ghouse and Vijay Kannan 7-6 (7-3), 6-3. It was a hat-trick as the duo had earlier won the second and third Satellite legs in Mumbai and Visakhapatnam.

In the doubles final Vishaal and Mustafa failed to hold serves before the two teams raised their levels to force the tie-breaker. Mustafa served deep but often rushed his shots while Vijay's volleys never did justice to his talent. Perhaps, he was tired after his semi-final victory against Tomer Suissa. The duo's agony worsened as Vishaal's return of serves and southpaw Nitin's forehands proved too good.

The second set got a premature burial with Mustafa Ghouse and Vijay Kannan swapping smiles rather than test their rivals' mettle. It seemed as though Mustafa and Vijay held an invisible white flag.

Vishaal Uppal (left) and Nitin Kirtane completed a hat-trick of doubles titles. The duo had earlier won in the Mumbai and Visakhapatnam legs.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

ATP points gained by the players at the conclusion of the ITF Satellite circuit: Singles: Mustafa Ghouse (27), Nitin Kirtane (22), Vijay Kannan (15), Vishaal Uppal (11) and Sandeep Kirtane (10). Doubles: Vishaal Uppal and Nitin Kirtane (35), Mustafa Ghouse and Vijay Kannan (30).

The results:

Singles (final): Vishaal Uppal (Ind) bt Vijay Kannan (Ind) 7-6 (11-9), 6-4.

Semi-finals: Vishaal Uppal bt Mustafa Ghouse 6-4, 6-3; Vijay Kannan bt Tomer Suissa (Isr) 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3).

Doubles (final): Vishaal Uppal and Nitin Kirtane (Ind) bt Mustafa Ghouse and Vijay Kannan (Ind) 7-6 (7-3), 6-3.

Semi-finals: Nitin Kirtane and Vishaal Uppal (Ind) bt Ivan Syrov (Rus) and Amod Wakalkar (Ind) 7-6 (7-2), 3-6, 6-2; Mustafa Ghouse and Vijay Kannan (Ind) bt Rohan Gajjar and Sandeep Kirtane (Ind) 4-6, 6-1, 6-1.

Back with a bang KALYAN ASHOK

VISHAAL UPPAL'S triumph in the ITF Masters championship marked one of the greatest comebacks in contemporary Indian tennis history. No one would have thought such a return was possible as Vishaal Uppal had virtually hit the pit of his career, sidelined from the Davis Cup squad and injuries plaguing him.

But then, self-belief has been the 25-year-old Vishaal Uppal's greatest strength and he hung on to it like his dear life, and has come back into business in a big way now.

It was in the 2000 Davis Cup tie against South Korea that Vishaal showed his mettle. He was picked to play the second singles in place of an injured Mahesh Bhupathi and the Delhi lad justified the faith reposed in him with a spectacular display and guided the country's triumph in the company of Leander Paes. He was a hero all right, but this halo did not last long as, inexplicably, he was dropped from the squad, and a string of losses and injuries put Vishaal down.

The worst phase was during early last year, when a knee injury almost put paid to his career. He came back into the circuit at the fag end of last year, but achieved little of note.

Qualifying for the ITF men's series this year, Vishaal clawed his way back and the doubles triumph with Nitin Kirtane in the Mumbai leg gave him hope. But that again seemed short-lived as the sapping heat at Visakhapatnam, halted his run in the singles and he was hospitalised due to exhaustion. "To be honest, I thought it was the end with drips in my arms, staring at hospital walls and with nothing much to hope for. But I got better, got down and played the doubles and again won with Nitin."

Vishaal had to virtually scrape his way into the Masters main draw and, having done that, he made sure he played his best. "At the start, there were too many highs and lows. I tended to rush a bit. But then I settled down to play my usual game," said Vishaal, whose tough as nails attitude and sensible court craft had him right on top in the tournament.

En route to the title, he beat Rishi Sridhar, Eliran Dooyev, Mustafa Ghouse and Vijay Kannan. The triumph was noteworthy as it came at the expense of these in-form players. The victory was sweeter as he picked the doubles title for the third time, along with Nitin Kirtane.

Joy and relief were writ large on Vishaal's face, as he held aloft the trophy sporting his favourite red T-shirt with a graffiti splashed on it. "It's my turn," it said.

It's truly Vishaal Uppal's turn now...