Prakash takes his first sure steps

WINNING your first ATP point and winning your first professional title have their own charm. You never forget them in a hurry, for it is as difficult to win an ATP point in the intensely competitive world of men's tennis as it is to win a title.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Prakash Amritraj, with a comprehensive and compact game, took the trophy.-Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN

WINNING your first ATP point and winning your first professional title have their own charm. You never forget them in a hurry, for it is as difficult to win an ATP point in the intensely competitive world of men's tennis as it is to win a title.

Prakash Amritraj had played in the Grand Slams, the Masters series events, the Tour events and the Challengers with mixed luck. It was indeed difficult for him to come down to the Satellite level and prove his ability.

But then, the 19-year-old Prakash has been on a mission for the last couple of years. He has been attempting to do something that his father Vijay Amritraj had performed with distinction over the years — representing India in Davis Cup.

It was important to prove to the Indian players that he was better than them, as much as to give the public a chance to see his growth from the time of the last Tata Open in Chennai and the two Challengers that were held in Bangalore and Delhi.

In the event, Prakash, who turned professional recently, showcased his talent and tenacity, an all-round game that can stand scrutiny at any level, by clinching the title in the second leg of the Satellite circuit in Chandigarh.

Prakash did not drop a set the whole week, and in fact, did not drop serve to anyone, except once to Mustafa Ghouse in the semifinals. Actually, Prakash hardly gave more than a handful of points on his serve to his opponents, who were thus under considerable pressure to hold their own serve.

He could hit the shots on either flank with punch, volley with elan, and move on court with purpose. In short, Prakash packaged a comprehensive and compact game to blow off the feeble challenge from the rest of the field.

``This was the best match I had played the whole week. I started strongly and stayed strong'', said Prakash, quite happy about his effort, especially in the final, when he did not allow Vijay to come anywhere near the trophy. Prakash had done well to win the U.S. junior championship to gain a wild card entry to the U.S. Open last year. He had played well in two Tour events to make the final qualifying round. He had beaten the 100th ranked Alexander Waske of Germany. He had also played decent matches against tough opponents, apart from doing well in doubles with his cousin Stephen Amritraj.

Yet, winning the title meant a lot for Prakash, who has big goals lined up for the future.``It is quite nice to win my first pro title. I am ready to do it again", announced Prakash, looking forward to the challenges.

The biggest advantage of playing the Satellite is that you not only get to play a whole lot of matches in tough conditions over four weeks, but you also stand a good chance to pick up quite a bunch of ATP points at the end of the month-long exercise, that would help improve your status on the ATP computer considerably.

With a semifinal appearance in the first leg in Mumbai and a title in the second, Prakash was right ahead in the race for gathering maximum ATP points from the circuit.

Except for Vijay Kannan who was ranked 591, the 586th ranked Prakash did not get to play anyone boasting of a good ranking. But that is how it goes in the Satellite level. You may end up playing a whole lot of less resourceful guys who may not give up that easily, fancying chances at this level.

The most important thing was to retain his focus and Prakash was very professional about achieving the task on hand, and did so with minimum fuss. It was admirable to see that Prakash did not let his concentration waver irrespective of the quality of opposition. There is no reason why he cannot further his cause and bag a bounty of ATP points, that would do his morale a world of good.

Vijay Kannan played well within his limitations. Once he recovered from an indifferent start against Hayato Furukawa of Japan in the second round, Vijay sailed smooth into the final, beating the hard-working Febi Widhiyanto of Indonesia 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals.

For someone talented and who can hit as well as anyone else in the Indian circuit, the former National champion, Vijay surrendered rather meekly to Prakash. It had more to do with his idea of playing crafty than his inability to hit his way past trouble. If he aspires to make it big and beat better opponents, Vijay may have to hit a lot better than just being content caressing the ball around against beguiled opponents of lesser proficiency.

Equally, it was quite a relief to see Mustafa Ghouse put up a good show, especially the one against Ajay Ramaswami when he bounced back from being a set down to win in an authoritative fashion. Mustafa, who won three three-setters on the trot, still needs to get the consistency factor attached to his game, especially in the service department. If anything, he is on the right track.

It was the poor quality balls that caused shoulder trouble for the likes of Mustafa and Vishaal Uppal, leading to below par fare from both when it mattered. Mustafa conceded his singles semifinal midway through the second set to Prakash and did not take the court for the doubles final.

Vinod Sridhar showed the spark of old in beating Prima Simpatiaji of Indonesia, who had made it to the final the previous week. He, however, proved easy meat for Vijay in the quarterfinals.

The top-seeded Sunil Kumar played below par in the climax in losing to the 1345th ranked qualifier Takeshi Itoh, who had fluent strokes and sparkling athleticism to back his claim to fame. Sunil needs to pull his socks up and focus harder on his game.

Vishaal let off Itoh in the second round, but Widhiyanto pinned him down in a third set tie-break in the quarterfinals.

Jaco Mathew made the draw as a lucky loser but capitalised on it by winning a round and putting up a good match against Prakash in the second.

Daniel Kiernan of Britain, who had won a double crown in Mumbai, retired after the first set in the first round against his doubles partner Ajay Ramaswami, as he was not only exhausted after playing 27 sets in 12 matches in singles and doubles in the first week but was also hampered by a pulled abdomen muscle.

In doubles, Vijay Kannan and Saurav Panja combined very well to convert their fifth matchpoint, saving one in the process, in beating the top-seeded Prakash Amritraj and Stephen Amritraj in the semifinals. That was a veritable final, as Vijay and Saurav got a walkover from Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal in the final.

There was a lot to cheer about for the sparse gathering that braved the hot and humid conditions, and the odd spell of rain that washed the atmosphere clean. They had seen the first sure steps of Prakash Amritraj in the world of professional tennis.

The results :

Singles (final): Prakash Amritraj bt Vijay Kannan 6-3, 6-1; Semifinals : Vijay Kannan bt Febi Widhiyanto (Ina) 6-4, 6-4; Prakash Amritraj bt Mustafa Ghouse 6-4, 3-2 (retired); Quarterfinals : Widhiyanto bt Takeshi Itoh (Jpn) 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5); Vijay Kannan bt Vinod Sridhar 6-4, 6-1; Mustafa Ghouse bt Ajay Ramaswami 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3; Prakash Amritraj bt Eliran Dooyev (Isr) 6-2, 6-4.

Doubles (final) : Vijay Kannan and Saurav Panja w.o. Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal; Semifinals : Vijay Kannan and Saurav Panja bt Stephen Amritraj and Prakash Amritraj 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (11-9); Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal bt Sanchai Ratiwatana and Sonchat Ratiwatana 2-1 (retired).