Sanam and Sanaa

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Sanam Singh poses with the trophy after winning the Asia Oceania junior title in Bangkok.-

YOU cannot keep a good player away from his game for long. You cannot stop a champion from winning the big titles. Sanam Singh illustrated that he had neither lost the passion for tennis, nor the appetite for winning, as he made light of a three-month injury period to capture the Asia-Oceania junior title in Bangkok.

The magnitude of the achievement could be gleaned from the fact that the effort pushed the 17-year-old Chandigarh lad to his career-best ranking of No. 13 in the world. With some of the players scheduled to graduate out of the juniors, experts feel that Sanam — who had won the Asian junior title earlier in the season in Seoul — would possibly be seeded No. 4 at the Australian Open junior event. "I was shocked to win such a big tournament so quickly after coming back from injury. Of course, I was seeded No. 2 and I did not expect to lose even in the semifinals. Yet, I didn't expect this big a performance from myself," said Sanam.

The good thing for him was that Sanam — who did not drop a set in five rounds, and conceded only 18 games in all — did not have to play the final as Hsin-Han Lee of Chinese Taipei, who had beaten top-seeded Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan in the other semifinal, pulled out with a shoulder injury. "It feels great to have won two B1 tournaments in the same year," said the small-built Sanam, even as he vowed to maintain the momentum and do well in the Grand Slams next season.

Sanaa Bhambri may have lost in the final to Ellen Barry of New Zealand but she created an impression.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Sanam won a mere three matches, including one at Wimbledon, in four tournaments on the European circuit, and a mere four games at the French Open, a far cry from his success in the Asian junior event. Obviously, the boy was not in the best shape to challenge the best players in the world on the big stages at Rolland Garros and Wimbledon. "He brought a certificate from the doctors saying `fit to play' before going on the European Tour. It was probably a mistake," said coach Gajendra Singh, who has been with Sanam and the Indian team on the junior tour.

The wrist injury — a ganglion ligament strain — has been troubling Sanam for quite some time, but he assures that he has been taking good care of the problem and says, "let's hope the injuries stay away". There is no doubt that Sanam is champion material. Unlike the other leading juniors Jeevan and Vivek Shokeen, who have flair and firepower but can often get carried away, Sanam has considerable maturity and he peaks at the right time.

Which is what he did after a miserable run in four tournaments to win his first big title in Seoul. Of course, Sanam has won many doubles titles with Jeevan, and hopes to do something big in the Grand Slams. "There will be the pressure of expectations, but I am not going to think about anything, and I just hope to focus on the game," said Sanam. "Sanam has an all-round game," said Gajendra Singh. "Playing the men's circuit would help him get better in shot selection. He works hard and is quite a smart player. He has good anticipation and is sharp at the net. He looks small, but hits hard. He has a strong backhand, and keeps increasing the pace on the shots."

Sanam plans to focus on the men's tournaments for the rest of the season. He made the quarterfinals of two Futures tournaments last season, but got to play only two tournaments in January this year, when he qualified and lost in the first round of the Futures events. Thanks to his new-found confidence, Sanam should be able to give a good account of himself.

Sanaa Bhambri, who has been playing the women's tournaments regularly, chose to play her first junior tournament of the season as a wild card and reached the final in a draw of 64.

The 17-year-old Delhi girl, who had reached the French Open doubles semifinals with Sania Mirza apart from having won a triple crown in the National championship last year, has decided to give it a shot at the Grand Slam junior events next season and possibly will draw some support with good performances.

Ellen Barry of New Zealand proved too good for Sanaa in the final as she won 6-1, 6-3. However, Sanaa was able to compete hard in pulling through in the close matches earlier against Denise Dy of Philippines and Tyra Calderwood of Australia.

Unlike Sanam, who has a high rank, Sanaa will have to really work hard in the rest of the season to take her junior ranking up, so that she is able to make a meaningful attempt in the big league next year. With points from one's best six tournaments counting for ranking, along with 25 per cent of points from the doubles, Sanaa may still be able to make a breakthrough.

Maybe, the presence of Sanaa, a smart left-hander, will help project a good image of the Indian junior girls who have otherwise been struggling to make an impact on the world stage, let alone follow the footsteps of Sania Mirza.