Radhika checks a Sheetal sweep

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

IT was like a marathon. One not only needed the skill, but considerable stamina, for a smart finish.

Radhika Tulpule, who won the singles title of the ITF Women's Masters in New Delhi.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Sheethal Goutham was the fore-runner till the climax, but it was Radhika Tulpule who came good in the end to win the honours, in the $5,000 ITF women's circuit, played over four weeks in Chandigarh, Muzaffarnagar and Delhi.

Being played just about three weeks after a similar circuit, which had been won by the 15-year-old Ankita Bhambri, it was an ideal opportunity for the Indian girls to keep themselves gainfully employed during the summer vacation.

In the event, it looked a one-woman show, as the 21-year-old Sheethal, a student of Jain College in Bangalore, swept the first three singles titles, beating Ankita once and Shruti Dhawan twice in the finals.

It was her sheer mastery of the angles, deft touch and a keen anticipation, not to forget the ability to adapt to the varied conditions on synthetic and grass, that made Sheethal more than a handful for the rest of the pack.

Sheethal ended up playing 34 matches, as she made all the eight finals, including the doubles. Sheethal finished runner-up to Radhika in the Masters final, but that was her only defeat in 19 matches. Not a mean achievement by any standards.

In doubles, Sheethal lost the final of the first leg, partnering Shruti, to the then top-seeded Radhika Tulpule and Liza Pereira in Chandigarh, but swept the next three titles. She thus played 15 doubles matches, winning 14 of them. Sheethal deserved all the money as she returned home with Rs. 1,40,000.

The run was too good to last till the end, and it was no surprise that Radhika, a talented girl with considerable ability, pulled off the coup in a clinical fashion in the Masters.

The 20-year-old Radhika had won two $10,000 titles apart from a $5,000 title last year. But she had to be content with a solitary WTA point from the previous circuit, as she went out in the first round of the Masters, to the unheralded Vandana Murali.

Shruthi Dhawan (left) and Sheetal Gautham clinched the Masters doubles title.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

This time around, Radhika played to a plan and conserved her energy. She almost blew it away with a poor semifinal against Shruti, but her resolve hauled Radhika through, even as Shruti suffered bouts of self-doubt at crucial stages in losing her venomous grip on the proceedings.

So, it was Radhika who captured the maximum possible five WTA points, while Sheethal had to be content with four points.

For a player of Radhika's ability it was not a big achievement, but she had opted to play the circuit to get a few matches under her belt, and to strike form after the examinations. She may have to play a lot more tournaments abroad to sharpen her skills and improve her status on the WTA computer.

It is the same case with Shruti, the first Indian girl to win the Masters title, way back in 1998. It is a pity that Shruti struggles at this level, after showing signs of improvement in tournaments abroad when she made the semifinals of the $10,000 events.

Shruti's game was rusty, but she did play some fine matches, like the one against Ankita in Chandigarh, the overpowering of Radhika in the third leg in New Delhi, and some smart play on grass in Muzaffarnagar.

Shruti's problem is the same as that of most of the other Indian girls. Lack of a professional coach, who would guide through the season. To that extent, Radhika is systematic, as she consults her coach Nandan Bal, at least over the phone before key matches, like the way she did before the semifinals and final of the Masters.

Ankita Bhambri had everything in her game, to win at least one title, but she was impetuous and tended to get carried away by her own ability to serve well and stroke with authority. When Ankita realises that she has to be in total tune with the match, and not lose concentration and confidence with momentary indiscretions, she would be a 100 per cent better player.

Maturity is hard to achieve. One has to spend years to gain knowledge. The smart ones learn from others, and put it to their own good use. Ankita looked a lost child when things were not going her way. Otherwise, she was easily one of the bright prospects with a sharp tennis brain.

Sheetal swept the singles titles in all the three legs before being stopped by Radhika in the Masters.-R. V. MOORTHY

Quite mysteriously, Ankita did not build on the good form when she made the final of the first leg, and put a strong fight against Sheethal. She lost twice again to Sheethal and once to Shruti, from positions of strength.

Sonal Phadke started as the top seed, but could not assert herself. The 20-year-old Mumbaikar was patient and stroked with diligence. She, however, lacked the punch in her shots to make it past the likes of Radhika, Sheethal and Shruti.

Sonal had her best chance in the Masters when she had Sheethal on the mat in the quarterfinals. But Sonal played below par after a brilliant start, and let Sheethal off the hook.

She is another player who had started showing results abroad, before getting trapped in the $5000 circuit at home.

Among others, Archana Venkataraman was quite consistent in making three quarterfinals, but found her Karnataka State-mate Sheethal playing far better than before, and lost two matches to her. Quite interestingly, Sheethal had not beaten Archana before in their numerous meetings.

Liza Pereira was consistent in making four quarterfinals and stroked with considerable flair. She lacked the drive to fight it out, especially against Radhika, who seemed to strike her best form whenever she found her doubles partner across the net!

Geeta Manohar had her chances against Shruti in the Masters, but missed two set points and crashed out in straight sets.

Medini Sharma was quite impressive when she did not play Sheethal, as she made light of her heavy frame in smacking winners. She was determined but did not have matching training to back her desire to excel.

Radhika (left) and Liza Pereira bagged the doubles title in the first leg at Chandigarh.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Samrita Sekar must have been disappointed to have made only one quarterfinal. But she took a medical break after the first tournament, and did struggle to strike her best form in the third and fourth weeks. Samrita was on song against an erratic Shruti, but let her escape, as she herself felt the heat too tough to handle.

Nandini Perumal, Deepa Chakravarthy and Iciri Rai shone briefly, but lacked the wherewithal to get past the seasoned players. Iciri played a nice serve and volley game against Sheethal on grass in Muzaffarnagar, but did not have the confidence to make a match of it, after winning the first set at 7-5, despite being perched precariously at 2-5 at one stage.

Nandita Chandrasekar, returning to the circuit after an injury lay-off, Preeti Rao, Priyanka Parekh and Lata Assudani were some of the players who did not make the maximum of their ability to play the game well.

Ragini Vimal was one qualifier who scared the wits out of the top-seeded Sonal in the second leg. Sandra Sashidharan was the most cheerful player as she played her heart out in both singles and doubles, with a big smile on her cherubic face.

Eventually, what was emphasised was the fact that the lesser lights just faded away, while six to eight players made a fair share of the overall prize money of about Rs. 10 lakhs.

One question that kept popping up through the circuit was about the very utility of it - a closed circuit for the Indian players with international points.

There was only one foreigner in the draw of the first three legs, Olexandra Verkhnyatska of Ukraine, the daughter of an Embassy official based in Delhi. The fact that Olexandra won the under-16 title in the Delhi State tournament held concurrently during the Masters event, showed her true status, as much as the status of the circuit that offered $20,000 in prize money.

If so much money had to be spent in conducting tournaments featuring Indian players, who do not seem to reach anywhere, playing each other week after week, there is something basically wrong.

A regular string of $10,000 events would ensure sufficient foreign participation and make the Indian players better. After struggling in the $10,000 events, the Indians had started winning them, the way they did last year with such conviction. But lack of continuity and the string of $5000 events have invariably brought down the Indian standard.

With Manisha Malhotra, Sai Jayalakshmy and Rushmi Chakravarthi opting to play in better tournaments abroad, it was indeed a lottery for the rest, though they did slog it out in hot and humid conditions.

If this continues, the Indian women's tennis will reach a point of no return, if it has not reached there already.

The idea of making the money from the domestic circuit and grab the international points, and invest them on tournaments abroad, is fine. But the standards are falling so much that the players would invariably struggle when they go abroad.

Both the Chandigarh and the Muzaffarnagar organisers felt the absence of the foreign players, and vowed to upgrade their events next time. The latter, of course, took a lot of pride in conducting the tournament and made it memorable for one and all with their personal touch.

Alok Swarup and Ravindra Choudhary, led a team of committed people in Muzaffarnagar, where play was made possible the same afternoon after heavy rain had converted the grasscourts into a swimming pool. More such people must be found in other places to provide the much needed fillip to women's tennis.

The results: Masters, New Delhi:

Singles (final): Radhika Tulpule bt Sheethal Goutham 6-2, 6-4; Semifinals: Sheethal bt Ankita Bhambri 7-5, 6-4; Radhika bt Shruti Dhawan 3-6, 6-4, 7-5; Quarterfinals: Sheethal bt Sonal Phadke 4-6, 6-4, 6-1; Ankita bt Medini Sharma 6-2, 6-1; Radhika bt Liza Pereira 6-0, 6-2; Shruti bt Geeta Manohar 7-6 (9-7), 6-2.

Doubles (final): Sheethal Goutham and Shruti Dhawan bt Liza Pereira and Radhika Tulpule 6-1, 6-2; Semifinals: Shruti and Sheethal bt Archana Venkataraman and Arthi Venkataraman 6-0, 6-2; Liza and Radhika bt Geeta Manohar and Ridhina Parekh 6-3, 6-1.

Third leg, New Delhi :

Singles (final): Sheethal Goutham bt Shruti Dhawan 6-4, 6-0; Semifinals: Sheethal bt Ankita Bhambri 5-7, 6-1, 6-1; Shruti bt Radhika Tulpule 6-3, 6-1; Quarterfinals: Sheethal bt Archana Venkataraman 7-5, 6-1; Ankita bt Liza Pereira 6-3, 6-2; Radhika bt Sonal Phadke 6-0, 6-4; Shruti bt Lata Assudani 6-0, 6-1.

Doubles (final): Sheethal Goutham and Shruti Dhawan bt Ankita Bhambri and Sonal Phadke 6-3, 2-6, 6-3; Semifinals: Shruti and Sheethal bt Archana Venkataraman and Arthi Venkataraman 6-4, 6-1; Ankita and Sonal bt Liza Pereira and Radhika Tulpule 7-5, 3-6, 6-4.

Second leg, Muzaffarnagar :

Singles (final): Sheethal Goutham bt Shruti Dhawan 6-2, 6-4; Semifinals: Shruti bt Sonal Phadke 7-5, 6-2; Sheethal bt Radhika Tulpule 6-1, 6-3; Quarterfinals: Sonal bt Archana Venkataraman 7-5, 7-6 (7-4); Shruti bt Ankita 4-6, 6-1, 6-0; Sheethal bt Medini Sharma 6-0, 6-0; Radhika bt Liza Pereira 6-4, 6-4.

Doubles (final): Shruti Dhawan and Sheethal Goutham bt Archana Venkataraman and Arthi Venkataraman 7-5, 6-0; Semifinals: Archana and Arthi bt Liza Pereira and Radhika Tulpule 6-2, 6-1; Shruti and Sheethal bt Ankita Bhambri and Sonal Phadke 6-4, 6-3.

First leg, Chandigarh:

Singles (final): Sheethal Goutham bt Ankita Bhambri 6-4, 2-6, 6-4; Semifinals: Sheethal bt Sonal Phadke 4-6, 6-4, 7-5; Ankita bt Archana Venkataraman 6-1, 6-2; Quarterfinals: Sonal bt Samrita Sekar 6-3, 6-3; Sheethal bt Liza Pereira 6-2, 6-4; Ankita bt Shruti Dhawan 6-7 (7-9), 6-3, 6-4; Archana bt Radhika Tulpule 3-6, 6-4, 7-5.

Doubles (final): Liza Pereira and Radhika Tulpule bt Shruti Dhawan and Sheethal Goutham 7-6 (8-6), 6-4; Semifinals: Liza and Radhika bt Radhika Mandke and Samrita Sekar 7-5, 6-1; Shruti and Sheethal bt Ankita Bhambri and Sonal Phadke 6-3, 2-6, 6-2.