Punna Vishal crowns himself with glory

A MATCH is not a final examination of your skills, stamina and speed, it is part of a continuing process of education that makes you better with every outing.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Punna Vishal seized a good opportunity to score a straight sets victory over Divij Sharan and thus bag the National title. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

A MATCH is not a final examination of your skills, stamina and speed, it is part of a continuing process of education that makes you better with every outing. Indian tennis has grown to understand the need for match-exposure and the players have been out around the world, throughout the season, gaining the much valued tips, through sheer experience, rather than being spoon-fed about the intricacies of the game.

The men's doubles champions — Rishi Sridhar and Ajay Ramaswami. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

It was thus no surprise that a clutch of youngsters turned the spotlight on themselves, at the end of a testing season, during the DSCL National tennis championship in New Delhi. The big guns were injured and tired at the end of a hectic season, and the lesser lights came out of the shadows to bask under the wintry sun, dispelling whatever gloom that may have enveloped Indian tennis. Punna Vishal may not be all that young at 20, but the wiry lad from Hyderabad, who trains with Ravidhander back home and Ronnie Maxwell in the UK, seized the opportunity to crown himself the National champion, with an authoritative performance.

"This was the best chance. I am not trying to take anything away from Divij Sharan, but I knew that things were falling in place for me. On the same day a year ago, I had lost the National Games final to Nitin Kirtane. I couldn't forget that. I was determined to win this one'', said Punna, who has been playing the professional circuit with determination, and improving with every outing.

Ankita Bhambri held sway over younger sister, Sanaa, in the women's final. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

Punna had made it to the semi-finals of the $10,000 ITF Futures event in Dehra Dun recently, and was quite confident that his game would see him through in the climax.

Divij was a revelation. His improved singles play came as a spell of fresh air to the Delhites who have been thirsting to nurture a player of calibre after Vishaal Uppal.

The 17-year-old Divij had shot up to be No.5 in the world in the ITF junior doubles rankings, but his singles record was a cause of concern. He put the record straight by making it to the singles final in the men's and junior events. It was all the more creditable that he cut through the 64-draw junior event, no mean achievement for a player who was featured in three finals eventually, including the men's doubles, in a span of six days.

The Bhambri sisters, Ankita and Sanaa, reigned supreme in the women's doubles. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

The Shri Ram College of Commerce student ended up with no title, but as first Punna and then Navdeep Singh dissected his game, with their all-round ability complemented by their unquenchable hunger for success, Divij must have realised the areas that he needs to work. The need to come to the net more often, rather than get caught in one corner of the court.

Yet, it was a commendable fare from Divij, especially in the manner in which he overcame three matchpoints to stop the defending champion Vinod Sridhar in a gripping contest in the semi-finals. Obviously, Divij has his limitations but being a diligent student of the game, he has been working hard on his game to be a better player everytime he returns to the court. Kamala Kannan was all athleticism and energy, but he failed to grab his chance after winning the first set against Punna in the semifinals. In fact, Kannan was the only one to take a set off Punna in the tournament.

Sanam Singh, the 15-year-old from Chandigarh showed a thing or two about playing quality tennis by beating the fourth-seeded Ajay Ramaswami, but his frail frame could not take the load much further as he fell in the quarterfinals of the boys' and men's events. A lot will be heard about this boy, who had to fight an intestinal infection for about six months this season.

Navdeep Singh, who won the boys' singles title. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

Somdev Dev Varman was a spent force for the season, as he had played tournaments at different levels for more than 30 weeks in the year. Somdev with a suspect shoulder was easy meat for Vinod, while Tushar Liberhan another talented youngster making rapid strides both in the men's and junior world could not get past Divij.

Gurmehar Singh looked quite an improved player with his fine victories over players of contrasting style, Vasudeva Reddy and Parantap Chaturvedi. The boy could serve and volley, and hit ground strokes with punch. Yet, as his coach Arun Kumar observed, the talented son of hockey captain Ajitpal Singh lacked match exposure, to play Punna on par in the quarterfinals.

There is a limit to what a coach can teach, and what training can do, but there is no limit to the education one can gain by playing adequate number of matches in different conditions. No coach can impart experience. It has to be earned the hard way, at considerable expenditure, as in the case of tennis.

The women's field was open. Anyone could have walked away with the trophy. The Bhambri sisters, Ankita and Sanaa capitalised on the situation to make the finals, and the elder sister clinched the title with ease. The sisters also won the doubles title to emphasise their supremacy. The success story of the Bhambris was another cause for cheer for Delhi, which had been generally accused of not promoting players despite the availability of world class infrastructure.

Punam Reddy who claimed the girls' singles event. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

The left-handed Sanaa could have had a tilt at the junior title as well, but for facing a match point following a call of foot-fault on second serve at 6-6 in the third set tie-break against S. Punam Reddy of Hyderabad. Eventually, Punam, a trainee of former National champion Vasudeva Reddy and Narendra Nath, won the title, beating Madura Ranganathan in the final.

Among all, one was impressed by the energy and intensity of Navdeep Singh, the Dubai-based young man who trains with John Hicks in UK. The 17-year-old Navdeep saved seven match points and converted his seventh match point in a battle of wits against his doubles partner Saurabh Kohli in the semi-finals. He played an all-round attacking game to down Divij in three sets in the final.

"This title is very important for me, to gauge my growth as a player. Next year I will try to make it to the Grand Slams by doing well in the ITF junior circuit'', said Navdeep, who by the observation of his coach Hicks, has grown bigger, stronger and wiser. If anything, Navdeep hits the ball better than most, and it should be interesting to follow his growth in 2004, along with a clutch of other juniors who are ready to compete on equal terms in the professional world.

The results: Finals:

Men's singles: Punna Vishal bt Divij Sharan 6-3, 6-2, 6-1. Doubles: Rishi Sridhar and Ajay Ramaswami bt Somdev Dev Varman and Divij Sharan 7-6 (9-7), 6-1.

Women's singles: Ankita Bhambri bt Sanaa Bhambri 6-3, 6-3. Doubles: Ankita Bhambri and Sanaa Bhambri bt Geeta Manohar and Archana Venkataraman 6-1, 6-2.

Boys' singles: Navdeep Singh bt Divij Sharan 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. Doubles: Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Sanam Singh bt Lalit Mann and Sandeep Kumar 7-5, 6-1.

Girls' singles: Punam Reddy bt Madura Ranganathan 6-0, 6-7 (3-7), 6-2. Doubles: Kartiki Bhat and Sandra Sashidharan bt Sandri Gangothri and Sandhya Nagaraj 7-6 (7-4), 6-4.