Second coming for Sunil Kumar?

RAJEEV BHATT

HE is a very talented player and equally graceful to watch. He shot to fame by winning the National men's title as a 16-year-old precocious talent. So much so that Leander Paes was moved to remark that he saw traces of himself in the young boy. (The left-hander had dived full-length for a volley on grass during a Challenger tennis tournament in Lucknow, to elicit such an excited remark from the Atlanta Olympics bronze medallist, as far back as in 1999.)

Leander went ahead and took Sunil in his fold, trying to nurture him by giving him chances to train with him in Orlando, and plan his career in the best way that he could. However, Leander could not get a coach to travel with Sunil, possibly because of financial constraints.

Six years down the road, Sunil Kumar is still groping in the dark. He is not sure of his future, except the fact that he has the security of a job with Indian Oil Corporation.

The good thing is, the 22-year-old Chandigarh lad is back to his winning ways as he showed by clinching the title in the third leg of the Satellite circuit and ending up with 30 ATP points that would boost his ranking considerably from 481.

He could have done better, but lost to Vishaal Uppal in the semifinals of the Masters.

Sunil beat Uppal, who had run low on physical energy in the third set the previous week, when he asserted himself by conceding a mere four points in the decider that he won at love.

In the Masters, while Uppal, 28, conserved his energy for the climax after losing the second set at love, Sunil lacked concentration. This has been a major drawback in Sunil's career. His inability to be sharp when the stakes are high has prevented him from making progress matching his potential.

However, it was a welcome return to form as Sunil had done precious little in the season after having reached the final of a Futures event in January and making the semifinals of another Futures tournament in Uzbekistan in April.

It was indeed a good recovery for the young man after he had lost in the first round of the first week of the Satellite to Aditya Madkekar in three sets. Sunil reached the final of the second week, losing in three sets to Alexey Kedriouk of Kazakhstan. He had his revenge in the third week as he played a solid final against Kedriouk.

Sunil has won two Futures titles but the third international title, albeit at the Satellite level, should bolster his confidence.

Though he needs to make a few technical corrections, like trying to avoid falling back after playing a stroke, the main challenge for Sunil would be to tune up his mind. Perhaps, Sunil also needs to mature as a person. He needs to be a little harder on himself.

With India's next Davis Cup tie to be held in Korea in February 2006, on a possibly slow surface, it will be in his own interest if Sunil is able to put together more good results in the next few months. More than anything else, Sunil needs to have better belief in himself and his game. — Kamesh Srinivasan