Prakash launches pro career in style

IT was only his second Satellite circuit. The 19-year-old Prakash Amritraj launched his professional tennis career in style with a hat-trick of singles titles, winning the Masters and two legs of the circuit, hands down.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Prakash Amritraj made a mark in the professional circuit by winning the Masters title hads down.-Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

IT was only his second Satellite circuit. The 19-year-old Prakash Amritraj launched his professional tennis career in style with a hat-trick of singles titles, winning the Masters and two legs of the circuit, hands down.

The sophomore student of the University of Southern California had turned professional in May. He had opted to play the Satellite circuit in India in a bid to get a lot of matches, and also show his brethren that he was breathing down many a neck, in the race for Davis Cup selection.

Prakash Amritraj achieved his objective as he took his tally to 83 circuit points, which converted to 30 ATP points and a bonus of six points for winning the circuit. It was a welcome addition for someone who only had 25 ATP points and a ranking of 618 to boast till then.

The field was not anything great to speak about. They were all average players trying to get ATP points so that they could get entry into the higher level of tournaments. Sunil Kumar had been the top player for the first two weeks with a ranking of 536, but had not been able to make an impression.

In such a situation, the stage was set for Prakash to dominate. He did not waste the opportunity.

The only botheration was that Prakash did not stand to gain much by doing well in the Masters as he had already assured himself of 26 of the maximum 30 ATP points, with his deeds in the first three weeks. He had made the semifinal of the first week, apart from sweeping the matches in the second and third legs without dropping a set.

When Prima Simpatiaji of Indonesia, Daniel Kiernan of Britain and Vijay Kannan, seeded second to fourth in that order, and a distant threat for Prakash had lost in the second round after a bye in the Masters, it was clear that Prakash had won the circuit. He was sure of 33 ATP points, including the bonus of six.

Febi Widhiyanto looked to be hitting the ball increasingly well, but fell short of expectations in the final.-Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

He needed to win three more rounds to get three more ATP points. It must have been quite tempting to throw it all away and pack the bags, but Prakash stayed focused, despite the body and mind pleading him to stop. It is a grind in the Satellite circuit, playing in different conditions, with different balls, etc. It is difficult to be fresh for the challenge in the fourth week, and that was how many put their hands up in surrender, content with what they had achieved.

Prakash had struggled to assert himself against Rohan Gajjar in the first set in the pre-quarterfinals, but was quite smooth once the Mumbaikar dropped serve while serving for the set at 5-4. He got a walk over from Vinod Sridhar in the quarterfinals, the latter perhaps trying to save his honour in avoiding a third successive defeat at the hands of Prakash.

In the semifinals, which many expected to throw some sparks, Prakash overpowered Sunil Kumar, with a touch of assurance, dropping six games in all. In fact, he conceded only 12 points on his serve in nine service games. He did have patches of bad play in that match, but Prakash stuck to the basics in getting out of trouble, honour unscathed.

In the final, in humid conditions following a sharp shower, when he needed to change seven shirts in playing two sets, Prakash was down 2-4 in the second set, but recovered to clinch the issue in the tie-break, against the Indonesian, Febi Widhiyanto who looked to be hitting the ball increasingly well as the match progressed.

It was indeed a mark of a champion that Prakash faced the challenge, whatever little that was in front, with considerable equanimity.

He had lost the doubles quarterfinals with cousin Stephen Amritraj, to the Ratiwatana twins, Sonchat and Sanchai of Thailand, 4-6, 6-7 (10-12), but Prakash was quite authoritative in maintaining his record of not dropping a set in singles in three weeks.

After losing to the eventual champion Daniel Kiernan of Britain, in a second set tie-break in semifinals of the first leg in Mumbai, Prakash hardly dropped serve, let alone sets. It was difficult to do anything better.

The last time he had attempted a Satellite circuit in May 2001, Prakash did not meet with much success. Playing on a wild card Prakash lost 5-7, 4-6 to the fourth-seeded Syed Fazaluddin in the first round of the first leg in Thiruvananthapuram. In doubles, Prakash partnering Fazaluddin lost in the second round.

In the second leg in Bangalore, Prakash lost 3-6, 0-6 to qualifier Or Dekel of Israel in the first round. Partnering Matthew Snowdon, Prakash lost 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 5-7 to Or Dekel and Eliran Dooyev of Israel in the second and final qualifying round of the doubles, after beating the Mishra brothers, Shivang and Nishank 6-1, 6-2 in the first round.

Prakash did not bother to try his luck any further in that circuit, and flew back to the United States.

In four Challengers in India, Prakash had managed to win one round, as he invariably ran into the top players. When he got a wild card for the Tata Open Tour event in Chennai this season, he was unlucky to run into Jiri Vanek of the Czech Republic. It was education all through, and Prakash has become better with all that experience.

Every time he went back to the US, Prakash has indeed returned a better player. That has been the one biggest positive factor in the young man's career thus far.

Meanwhile, among others the sixth-seeded Widhiyanto managed to capitalise on the favourable situation in the Masters, when those who had done well earlier were tired, both physically and mentally, and became easy targets. The Indonesian hung in gamely against Yew-Ming Si of Malaysia to win the semifinals 7-5 in the third set. He had accounted for the Hong Kong player Hiu Tung Yu who had beaten the second-seeded Prima Simpatiaji 6-2, 6-2 in the second round.

Yu had played in the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania group `II' tie against Lebanon in Colombo before flying back to the Capital for the Masters event. He pipped Stephen Amritraj 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (7-4) in the first round. With a heavily strapped right knee, Stephen, who had won the play-off to qualify for the Masters, was considerably hampered in his movements, but he was a great sport in trying his best in both singles and doubles.

Vijay Kannan (left) and Saurav Panja recovered in time not only to claim the doubles trophy but also to top the circuit with 60 points.-Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

Stephen had made the semifinals of the Tour event in Los Angeles, with Prakash, beating the likes of George Bastl of Sweden and Sandon Stolle of Australia apart from Neville Godwin of South Africa and Kevin Ullyett of Zimbabwe.

Despite the limitations, Prakash and Stephen managed to collect 28 ATP points along with a bonus of three more, for finishing second in the circuit.

Vijay Kannan and Saurav Panja recovered from being a set down against Rohan Gajjar and Saurabh Kohli in the first round, and went on to clinch the title in the Masters, beating the Asian Games bronze medallists, Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal. The duo topped the circuit with 60 points, which helped them collect a maximum possible 36 ATP points for their toil, including six bonus.

Well, for Prakash Amritraj, the foundation for a successful professional career was truly established in the Indian Satellite circuit. It remains to be seen as to what he manages to build on that rock-solid foundation.

The results :

Singles (final): Prakash Amritraj bt Febi Widhiyanto (Ina) 6-2, 7-6 (7-3); Semifinals : Prakash Amritraj bt Sunil Kumar 6-3, 6-3; Febi Widhiyanto bt Yew-Ming Si (Mas) 3-6, 6-4, 7-5; Quarterfinals: Prakash Amritraj w.o. Vinod Sridhar; Sunil Kumar bt Hayato Furukawa (Jpn) 6-2, 6-3; Yew-Ming Si bt Eliran Dooyev (Isr) 6-4, 7-6 (7-3); Febi Widhiyanto bt Hiu Ting Yu (Hkg) 6-3, 6-0.

Doubles (final): Vijay Kannan and Saurav Panja bt Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal 6-4, 7-6 (7-4); Semifinals: Vijay Kannan and Saurav Panja bt Sonchat Ratiwatana and Sanchai Ratiwatana 6-3, 7-6 (7-2); Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal bt Febi Widhiyanto and Hendri-Susilo Pramono (Ina) 7-6 (7-5), 6-4.