Pratt's long wait ends

For someone who had been on the circuit for close to 15 years, the long wait had finally ended for Pratt as she defied all odds to win her maiden WTA singles title in only her second final appearance.

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

EVEN as the emerging star from India on the women's circuit, 17-year-old Sania Mirza, created history of sorts by becoming the first-ever Indian to win a WTA title when she partnered Liezel Huber of South Africa to pick the doubles crown, Nicole Pratt, a gutsy 31-year-old Australian, now settled in the United States, demonstrated the efficacy of controlled aggression when it mattered the most as she outslugged the flamboyant Maria Kirilenko in the singles final of the WTA Hyderabad Open tennis championship held at the floodlit Fateh Maidan Tennis Complex in Hyderabad.

Nicole Pratt proudly displays her trophy. — Pic. H. SATISH-

For someone who had been on the circuit for close to 15 years, the long wait had finally ended for Pratt as she defied all odds to win her maiden WTA singles title in only her second final appearance. By her own confession, the Aussie, who looks up to the legendary Martina Navratilova for inspiration, is still competing in the circuit for the sheer love of the sport as she just cannot think of life without tennis. And the brilliant performance in the Hyderabad Open could not have come at a better time as she was giving herself a couple of more years to make a decent impression on the WTA circuit.

It was a thoroughly professional performance from Pratt who is not really a crowd-puller. But she dished out a lesson or two in the art of raising the level of her game under pressure. What clearly separated her from the others in the fray was her controlled aggression. Her often solid game was dotted with some impeccable forehand cross-court returns but her backhand is comparatively weaker. With a no-nonsense approach to the task on hand and showing very little emotion, Pratt didn't surprise many when she eventually won the title for she had always been the favourite even as the crowd longed for Kirilenko for obvious reasons once the big names, including the defending champion Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand, who bowed out in the semi-final, made their exits.

The best moment from an Indian point of view came when the teenage sensation from the host city, Sania Mirza, partnered Liezel Huber, ranked World No. 11 in doubles with nine WTA doubles titles already in her kitty, to script a historic win. The way the two complemented each other — in reeling off those stinging serves or scintillating interceptions at the net — was a treat to watch and the crowd clearly enjoyed the fare. The pair triumphed 7-6 (7-1), 6-4 over Ting Li and Tiang Tiang Sun of China.

"I am delighted to be the first Indian to win the WTA title and that too in front of my parents and home crowd," said a beaming Sania. And, to her delight, Huber didn't rule out the possibility of partnering Sania in future.

Sania Mirza became the first Indian to win a WTA title, when she partnered Liezel Huber of South Africa to clinch the doubles crown. — Pic. H. SATISH-

The event got off to a stunning start when Yuka Yoshida of Japan (ranked World No. 133) caused the biggest upset, knocking out compatriot Saori Obata, the top-seed, 6-4, 6-2, with a brilliant combination of deep, angular returns. Obata's preference to go for the top-spin quite often was one of the reasons for the shock defeat since the returns were invariably erratic. The second day of the event saw the local favourite Sania Mirza bow out as Pratt recorded a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 win. Once the fourth-seeded Pratt realised that Sania was enjoying the fare in the first set, whipping those stunning passing shots on either side, she quietly changed the strategy by slowing down the pace of the game, relying more on the sliced backhand returns which upset the youngster's rhythm. "She was overpowering me and hitting those passing shots with precision and power and that's why I had to opt for the sliced returns. If she continues what she is doing now, she will be a force to reckon with if only she masters the art of handling pressure at a higher level in the WTA circuit," observed Pratt.

The early phase of the championship saw two more upsets when seventh seeded Maria Elena Camerin of Italy and Lubomira Kurhajcova of Slovakia were shown the gate by Angelique Widjaja of Indonesia (6-3, 6-4) and Mervana Jugic Salkic of Bosnia-Herzgovina (7-6, 4-6, 6-3) respectively. But one player who made a big impact with her high-voltage game was second-seeded Marion Bartoli of France, who was accompanied by her father-cum-coach Walter Bartoli. She also provided an interesting sight of looking up to her father in the stands every time she lost a point — as if seeking some sign language to change the script on the court. Her double-fisted shots from the deep and her few forays to the net invariably brooked no return.

The semi-final line-up of Nicole Pratt-Marion Bartoli and Tamarine Tanasugarn-Maria Kirilenko provided the perfect setting for the penultimate day's show. Pratt tried to pin down her rival on her weak forehand, while Bartoli aimed at pushing her opponent beyond by placing those stinging returns to her opponent's weaker backhand. The Australian staved off two match-points in the second set which extended into a tie-breaker before wrapping it up. That was the phase when her solid game came to the fore as she gave little away with those measured, deep returns. Pratt made it to the final with a 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 victory.

In the other semi-final, defending champion Tanasugarn, who was not fully fit, went down to Kirilenko. The fast-improving Russian has climbed from 750-plus 12 months ago to 150-plus now in the WTA rankings. Defying her slim physique, this dynamic player demonstrated why she was rated so high on the Tour with a high-quality serve-and-volley game.

The results:

Singles (final): Nicole Pratt (Aus) bt Maria Kirilenko (Rus) 7-6 (7-3), 6-1.

Semi-finals: Pratt bt Marion Bartoli (Fra) 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2; Kirilenko bt Tamarine Tanasugarn (Thai) 6-3, 6-2.

Doubles (final): Liezel Huber (RSA) & Sania Mirza (Ind) bt Ting Li & Tiang Tiang Sun (Chn) 7-6 (7-1), 6-4.

Semi-finals: Huber & Sania bt Zi Yan & Jie Zheng (Chn) 7-6 (7-3), 6-3; Li & Sun bt Yulia Beygelzimer (Ukr) & Tatiana Poutchek (Bel) 6-3, 6-2.