Sania and etcetera

ANKITA BHAMBRI ON her way to claiming the ITF tournament in New Delhi recently.-SANDEEP SAXENA

With Sania Mirza struggling to recapture her winning touch at the start of the new season, the recent achievements of the rest of the established Indian girls do not present the best case for them to be models of inspiration, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

Indian women's tennis is not exactly throbbing with life these days. Teen queen Sania Mirza is struggling to recapture her winning touch at the start of the new season following a particularly punishing training stint with Tony Roche. The recent achievements of the rest of the established Indian girls do not present the best case for them to be models of inspiration for youngsters nursing ambitions to pursue tennis as a career. This is true in spite of Ankita Bhambri winning the title in a $10,000 ITF women's tournament in New Delhi recently and Megha Vakharia reaching the final of a similar tournament in Muzaffarnagar, known more for its crime than its grass courts.

Among the talent nurtured at home, Ankita, 19, has the best credentials to go up the ladder in the lower echelons of the game. Yet, after winning her last two ITF tournaments with conviction, the Delhi girl, who finished runner-up to Sania Mirza in the Asian Junior Championship in 2002, had to retire from her second round match in Muzaffarnagar with a painful elbow.

If Sachin Tendulkar can suffer from tennis elbow, one cannot question the legitimacy of tennis players getting injured by wielding a racquet. With technology backing them so well, the players need to have the right technique to avoid injuries and they need to strike the ball a lot better to come up with good results. Indeed, girls like Ankita cannot afford to be content with the top-spin drives that stay within the court but fail to take them far in their professional career.

Megha, 21, has an easy stroking style and the natural grace of a left-hander. But, she lacked the punch to tackle Ksenia Palkina of Kyrgyzstan. While Palkina, 16, won her maiden title after fumbling against Ankita the previous week, Megha lost her seventh final in eight attempts. This is cause for some disillusionment. In Megha's defence, it may be argued that she was just returning from a six-month injury lay-off and was not at her fluent best. But the lack of variety in her game was stark.

In fact, for such a short girl, one would expect her to be exceptionally quick on her feet, but she was often stranded. Indian girls certainly need to work on their physical fitness a lot more so that they can be quite sharp on court and do justice to their ability.

Two girls who caught the eye were Asha Nandakumar of Bangalore and Prerna Mythri of Hyderabad. Asha, 18, is tall and strong. She did justice to her build and her game by stretching Palkina to three sets in an entertaining contest in the second round on grass at Muzaffarnagar. Prerna, 15, showed glimpses of a big game as she unsuccessfully tackled Paarul Goswami in the quarterfinals. With the GVK Group, Sania's first sponsor, showing faith in her and coaches such as Vasudeva Reddy and Narendra Nath tuning her game, Prerna can possibly explode into the scene once she finishes her tenth standard examinations.

MEGHA VAKHARIA IN action during the recent ITF tournament at Muzaffarnagar. She was the losing finalist.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Sandhya Nagaraj, who could not make much of an impact in the junior events of the Australian Open, is another player with a striking game. The Tamil Nadu girl, 17, is training with coach M. Balachandran in Bangalore. Sandhya, like all other Indian girls, needs to think on her feet. To be able to handle a match with competence, irrespective of how well one plays on a given day, is the mark of a champion. It is this aspect that Indian players need to work on.

And, what about the last Indian girl who beat Sania, the 20-year-old Isha Lakhani?

One could not digest the fact that Isha opted out of the tournament in Muzaffarnagar.

Perhaps the fact that the tournament was played on grass influenced her decision. Or it could have been the chastening experience at the hands of Rushmi Chakravarthi in the National Championship final. Isha lost rather tamely to Ankita in the semifinals in Delhi, which perhaps could be attributed to the blues of a fresh season.

Isha, though small in build, has loads of determination and good speed on court. If she trains hard and stays focussed, Isha can really make a difference to her career graph.

Sania Mirza is an exceptional talent, but the rest of the Indian girls are not as bad as they look or their rankings might suggest.