HANDLING pressure is an acquired skill, blessed are those with the experience of having faced tight situations before. Rohan Bopanna felt the pressure of expectations, allowed his mind to wander and finished second best.


HANDLING pressure is an acquired skill, blessed are those with the experience of having faced tight situations before. Rohan Bopanna felt the pressure of expectations, allowed his mind to wander and finished second best. Zbynek Mlynarik played with the carefree abandon of a qualifier for whom lasting the course was more important than the outcome and ended on top. "I didn't expect to win, just came here to play and see how my body responds,'' the champion said.

The $15,000 International Tennis Federation's Men's Futures at Mumbai showed why exuberance is a minor substitute for experience when realising sporting potential. A hard-working Austrian, ranked 864th and climbing up the men's ATP ladder after a year wasted due to injury, needed little motivation to perform beyond expectations when opportunity presented itself to earn a few points and dollars. A talented Indian, given a stage to showcase his stuff under familiar conditions, stumbled at the final hurdle.

Mlynarik moved from qualifier to contender to champion in the space of a week, surprising himself by winning the Mumbai leg singles title 7-6(4), 7-6(5) against fifth seed Bopanna whose aggressive intent came apart when the count of errors rose over a span of two hours. The Austrian won $1950 and picked up 18 ATP points for holding his nerve in the face of a barrage of 15 aces on a hardcourt surface suited for his Indian opponent's intimidatory game.

"I played Grand Slams before the injury (stress fracture of the ankle). I knew there were a few players (in the ITF Futures) who can play at my level,'' observed Mlynarik, shrugging off the aces bouncing out of reach and building up his case for the title point by point. Winning both sets in the final in tie-breaker was proof of the qualifier's determination to fight to the finish, come what may.

Bopanna commanded respect for his serving from the Austrian. "He is a very big server, so my focus was on somehow ensuring that I didn't lose on serve,'' said the qualifier-turned-champion. "The tie-breaker is a mental game, so in case his first serves didn't go in, I knew there was a chance to put pressure on the second serve.'' Mlynarik's mental alertness came to the fore in this critical phase, built on solid groundstrokes and placement to wrest the initiative.

The occasion got to the in-form Indian, accompanied by ex-India Davis Cupper Prahlad Srinath as touring coach. Bopanna banked on a mighty serve to bounce his way out of trouble, as has been happening right through the Mumbai Futures week at Dr. G. A. Ranade Tennis Centre, but gave away more points in the final with wild swipes at the ball in a tearing hurry to slam winners at the earliest opportunity.

The early exuberance gave way to apprehension against the Austrian whose compact, composed play under pressure bore the stamp of competence. Mlynarik grew in stature after winning both tie-breakers, an ITF Futures title coming as a double delight for this unassuming pro for whom the physical recovery, was the bigger achievement. He crept up the singles draw, away from limelight focussed on the seeded players, till the final when he became an object of curiosity.

Now Bopanna knows a lot more about him. The Indian had to remain satisfied with 12 ATP points and $ 1350, a disappointing result for this exciting Bangalore talent, encouraged by a recent breakthrough into the national Davis Cup squad. Apart from him, Harsh Mankad was the only Indian seeded (number eight) in the singles draw but lost in the pre-quarterfinals. It was left to Vijay Kannan to restore Indian pride by forcing his way into the quarterfinals before running into the eventual champion.

The 23-year-old Southern Railway employee, competing on his own in the absence of a support system to project his talent, stunned seventh seed Jakub Hasek with a standout display. A big heart and bigger lungs enabled Kannan walk away a winner against the big server from Czech Republic. The scoreline read 4-6, 7-6 (18-16), 6-4 in favour of the unseeded Indian after two hours, four minutes of enthralling action. He went on to defeat Slovakian Jural Hasko over three sets, clawing back after losing the first 2-6 to win the next two 6-4, 6-0.

According to Kannan, T. Chandrasekhar coaches him at Chennai without charging any fee. "I am hopeful of using this experience in future ITF events,'' said the youngster whose back-to-back comebacks livened up proceedings in a Futures event affected by withdrawals of top seed Yeu Tzuoo Wang (Chinese Taipei), second seed Andres Dellatorre (Argentina) and third seed Rogier Wassen (The Netherlands).

The doubles event saw a new-look Indian pair of Harsh Mankad and Vishal Uppal striking up a winning combination at the first attempt. They defeated a Dutch-German combine of Jasper Smit and Daniel Lesske respectively in straight sets, earning 18 ATP points and sharing $945, as against 12 points, $495 each for the losing finalists. The ITF Mumbai Futures was sponsored and organised by Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association.

The results:

Men's singles final : Zbynek Mlynarik (Austria) bt 5-Rohan Bopanna (India) 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5); Semifinals : Z. Mlynarik (Aut) bt David Sherwood (Great Britain) 6-4, 7-5; R. Bopanna (Ind) bt Jonathan Marray (Gbr) 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.

Men's doubles final : Harsh Mankad/Vishal Uppal (India) bt Jasper Smit (The Netherlands)/Daniel Lesske (Germany) 6-2, 7-5; Semifinals : H. Mankad/V. Uppal bt J. Marray/D. Sherwood (Gbr) 6-3, 6-2; J. Smit (Neth)/D. Lesske (Ger) by Vijay Kannan/Ajay Ramaswami 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4.