Sania asserts her class

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

In an all-Indian final Sania Mirza defeated Ankita Bhambri in straight sets.-V.V. KRISHNAN

SHE is in a different league. Sania Mirza is definitely one of the very best in Asia, not just among the juniors.

The 16-year-old Hyderabad girl asserted her undisputed class by clinching the Asian junior tennis title in Delhi without dropping a set. Despite being the second seed, Sania was the hot favourite for the girls' crown, as she had built her credentials in a brilliant fashion, through the season.

The teenager had captured everyone's imagination by winning three singles titles on the trot in the $10,000 women's circuit tournaments, and two of them happened to be over a fortnight in Manila. She had also partnered Leander Paes in clinching the mixed doubles bronze in the Busan Asian Games, and the duo beat the top seeds in the first round.

In fact, Sania did not have to prove anything at the junior level, not at least in Asia. She had started focussing on the professional circuit, and was showing remarkable consistency despite the penchant to go for her shots at the slightest opportunity.

Yet, no Indian girl had won the Asian juniors, as compared to a string of titles by Deepak Bhargava, Zeeshan Ali, Asif Ismail, Rohit Rajpal, Sandeep Kirtane and Sunil Kumar in the boys' section. It was a prudent decision to put Sania in the fray, though she had to face the demands of a heavy season.

It was a season in which Sania, in the company of Ankita Bhambri and Kartiki Bhat, had taken the Indian team to the fifth position in the world Junior (under-16) Fed Cup, in an intensely competitive field of about 80 countries.

Chinese Taipei's Tai Wei-Liu, who won the boys' singles title.-V.V. KRISHNAN

"I will give it the best shot, though there are a couple of players in the field who have beaten me," said Sania, on the eve of the tournament, even before the draw had been made.

As luck would have it, Sania drew the toughest players in the first two rounds. She was unperturbed and cut through the opposition with her new found confidence and a sharp game. Sania had needed a third set tie-break to beat Thassha Vittayaviroj of Thailand in the $10,000 tournament in Manila. She beat the same girl for the loss of just six games this time. She had lost to Yi Chen earlier in the season, and Sania dropped only eight games to the Taipei girl in the second round.

Thereafter, Sania proved too strong for qualifier Marutha Devi who had managed to reach that far. In the semifinals, Sania needed to protect her knee, and played with a strap. Yet, she proved too good for the 13-year-old fourth seed Yung-Jan Chan of Chinese Taipei, dropping a mere six games.

In the final against Ankita Bhambri, Sania was up 6-3, 4-1 when she allowed her game to dip a bit. Coupled with the fact that Ankita played some of her best tennis in that phase, Sania was in a spot of bother as she faced a set point in the 10th game of the second set. However, the champion powered herself out of trouble to finish off in straight sets, smacking a forehand crosscourt winner.

"I am very happy. It was important for me to win this title. Everyone had expected me to win it, and I am glad that I did," said Sania.

It was indeed a splendid effort, as there were girls in the draw who could wear out the best of talent with their strong groundstrokes and a lot of patience. If she continues in the same fashion, Sania will be able to follow two of the best girls in Asia, Angelique Widjaja of Indonesia who has already won a WTA Tour title and Su-Wei Hsieh of Chinese Taipei.

Since she cannot play more than 12 tournaments in a year in the women's circuit as she is only 16, Sania will be spending a lot of time next year in the junior tournaments and in training.

The plans are such that she would be missing the Australian Open to train in the U.S. for a few weeks. She is sure to get a wild card for the WTA Tour event to be held in Hyderabad in the first week of February, which will be a big chance for the young girl to brush shoulders with some of the best professionals.

Thereafter, a couple of $10,000 tournaments will be followed by a string of junior events in South East Asia. Sania will be playing in Europe before the French Open and will continue till Wimbledon.

With the backing of the GVK Group and the All India Tennis Association (AITA), there is no reason why the talented and hard working girl cannot make it to the next league with such a plan, over the next six months.

It is catch-up time for the rest of the Indian girls. The top-seeded Isha Lakhani, ranked 30th in the world as compared to Sania's 60, had managed to win a solitary game when the two met in the women's tournament in Pune recently.

From that viewpoint, it was an admirable effort by Ankita Bhambri to have first beaten Isha in three sets and then held her own against Sania in the final. With a little more self-confidence and hard training, the Delhi girl should be able to improve a lot. To have made it to the final was in itself a tremendous achievement by Ankita, who played three setters on the trot in three rounds, including the one against Kartiki Bhat in the semifinals.

Korean girls Ji Young Kim (left) and So Jung Kim defeated Sania Mirza and Isha Lakhani to clinch the doubles title.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The bespectacled Kartiki has improved quite a bit and will be the one to watch out for next year along with Sanaa Bhambri. The latter, the only Indian girl to make it to the semifinal last year in the same tournament, could not make much headway this time despite being seeded fifth, as she was below par in the first round against Montinee Tangphong of Thailand.

The sixth-seeded Tara Iyer caught everyone's attention with her sound basics and solid strokeplay. The 14-year-old played very well to make the quarterfinals, but it was due to sheer lack of experience that she failed to win the match against the fourth-seeded Yung-Jan Chan.

Hailing from a family of tennis players of four generations, the US-based Tara should be able to make her mark if she continues in the same fashion. She is a rare talent in Indian women's tennis. The organisers were quick in their appreciation, and adjudged her the `most promising player'.

Overall, the Indian girls gave a better account of themselves than the boys in the tournament.

A lot depended on Karan Rastogi, Amanjot Singh, Somdev Dev Varman and Tushar Liberhan, but none of them could make it to the semifinals.

Amanjot fell to the top-seeded Wang-Cheng Hsieh of Chinese Taipei and Somdev failed to capitalise on an early break in the second set in the match against the fourth-seeded Hiu-Tung Yu of Hong Kong in the quarterfinals.

The third-seeded Karan Rastogi, the best Indian hope, led 5-2 before losing his way against the eventual finalist Hyun-Joon Suk of Korea in the second round. It was a case of self-doubt than anything else, as Karan failed to win another game.

The boys' doubles winners, Wang Chang Hsieh (left) and Yi Ming Wu of Chinese Taipei.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Though he had beaten the same player in a tough three-setter in the prestigious Osaka junior tournament on way to the quarterfinals, Karan lacked the confidence in his ability to beat the Korean the second time.

The reversal apart, Karan has been doing pretty well in the circuit and it should not be a surprise if he tightens his game, both physically and mentally, to make his presence felt in the junior Grand Slams in 2003.

Suk's game was dissected by the second-seeded Tai-Wei Liu of Chinese Taipei in the final. The left-hander had lost to Sunil Kumar from a position of strength the previous year, and ensured that the trophy did not slip from his grasp this time.

There were no doubles crown for the Indian players, as the top-seeded Sania Mirza and Isha Lakhani, who had made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open junior event, failed to convert four setpoints in the second set, in going down to the unsung Ji Young Kim and So Jung Kim of Korea in the final.

That reversal apart, it was a tournament tailor-made for Sania, and she warmed the hearts of the Indian tennis enthusiasts by crowning herself with glory.

The results:

Boys (final): Tai-Wei Liu (Tpe) bt Hyun-Joon Suk (Kor) 6-2, 6-3. Semifinals: Hyun-Joon Suk btWang-Cheng Hsieh (Tpe) 6-3, 6-3; Tai-Wei Liu bt Hiu-Tung Yu (Hkg) 6-1, 3-6, 6-1. Quarterfinals: Wang-Cheng Hsieh bt Amanjot Singh 6-4, 6-2; Hyun-Joon Suk bt Cheuk Wai Hui (Hkg) 6-0, 6-2; Hiu-Tung Yun bt Somdev Dev Varman 6-3, 6-4; Tai-Wei Lie bt Weerapat Doakmaiklee (Tha) 7-6 (7-3), 6-2. Pre-quarterfinals: Wang-Cheng Hsieh bt Brian Hung (Hkg) 4-6, 6-3, 7-5; Amanjot Singh bt Kenichiro Nakahara (Jpn) 6-0, 6-1; Hyun-Joon Suk bt Karan Rastogi 7-5, 6-0; Cheuk Wai Hui (Hkg) bt Saurabh Kohli 6-4, 6-2; Somdev Dev Varman bt Divij Sharan 4-6, 6-3, 6-4; Hiu-Tung Yu bt Rupesh Roy 6-1, 6-2; Weerapat Doakmaiklee bt Tushar Liberhan 6-1,0-6, 7-5; Tai-Wei Liu bt Navadeep Singh 6-3, 6-2.

Doubles (final): Wang Chang Hsieh and Yi Ming Wu (Tpe) bt Woong Sun Jun (Kor) and Yu-Da Shieh (Tpe) 7-6 (7-3), 6-2. Semifinals: Woong Sun Jun and Yu-Da Sheih bt Saurabh Kohli and Karan Rastogi 2-6, 6-2, 6-0; Wang Chang Hsieh and Yi Ming Wu bt Tushar Liberhan and Divij Sharan 6-1, 7-5.

Girls (final): Sania Mirza bt Ankita Bhambri 6-3, 7-5. Semifinals: Ankita Bhambri bt Kartiki Bhat 6-4, 6-7 (7-9), 6-1; Sania Mirza bt Yung-Jan Chan (Tpe) 6-3, 6-3. Quarterfinals: Ankita Bhambri bt Isha Lakhani 3-6, 6-3, 7-5; Kartiki Bhat bt Hee Sun Lyoo-Suh (Kor) 6-3, 6-3; Yung-Jan Chan (Tpe) bt Tara Iyer 7-6 (7-), 6-2; Sania Mirza bt Marutha Devi 6-1, 6-0. Pre-quarterfinals: Isha Lakhani bt Sandhya Nagaraj 6-0, 6-2; Ankita Bhambri bt So-Jung Kim (Kor) 0-6, 6-1, 6-4; Hee Sun Lyoo-Suh bt Ting-Wen Wang (Tpe) 6-1, 2-6, 7-5; Kartiki Bhat bt Montinee Tangphong (Tha) 6-4, 6-2; Tara Iyer bt Parul Goswami 6-0, 6-1; Yung-Jan Chan bt Ji-Young Kim (Kor) 6-2, 3-6, 6-0; Marutha Devi bt Madura Ranganathan 7-5, 3-6, 6-1; Sania Mirza bt Yi Chen (Tpe) 7-5, 6-3.

Doubles (final): Ji Young Kim and So Jung Kim (Kor) bt Sania Mirza and Isha Lakhani 7-6 (7-4), 7-6, (9-7); Semifinals: Sania Mirza and Isha Lakhani bt Yi Chen (Tpe) and Maya Rosa (Ina) 6-7 (4-7), 7-5, 7-5; Ji Young Kim and So Jung Kim bt Ankita Bhambri and Sanaa Bhambri 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.