SHARATH, VISHAKHA show their worth


A. Sharath Kamal... an outstanding performance.-R.V. MOORTHY

THE glint of pride in the moist eyes of Vishakha Bijoy was hard to miss. After more than a decade of disappointing performance, this determined girl finally landed her first major title. It came the hard way and in the process, Vishakha discovered the strength of confidence she seemed to lack in the past.

Twice Vishakha bounced back from the brink of defeat to leave her more accomplished rivals devastated. Indeed, when this 23-year-old raised the trophy that symbolised her supremacy in the women's singles of the All India inter-institutional table tennis championship, none could grudge her triumphant moment.

Posing next to Vishakha was A. Sharath Kamal, who swept all the titles at stake. After leading Petroleum to the team title, he won the men's doubles, mixed doubles and rounded off his campaign by taking the men's singles crown. In fact, Sharath's triumph also completed Petroleum's sweep of all seven titles in the championship. Together, the two pony-tailed champions, the lanky Sharath and the diminutive Vishakha, made a pretty picture. But if one looks at the success quotients of these two champions, they present a study in contrast.

Since the beginning of 2003, a lot has happened in Sharath's career. The country's top-ranked player for the past two years, this Indian Oil employee became the National champion in December 2003, won the Commonwealth singles and team titles in 2004 before qualifying for the Athens Olympic Games. This year, he added the Arjuna Award to his growing collection. From a distant 296 in the world in 2003, Sharath is presently threatening to break the 150-barrier. His aim is to break into the world's top-50 list before the next Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

Currently, in India, there is no other player who works as hard as Sharath does on physical fitness and technical aspect of the game. Considered unbeatable in the country, Sharath is wisely reinvesting all his winnings to train and play abroad. His employers Indian Oil bear part of his expenses overseas and know that Sharath is following the right course.

On the other hand, ONGC's Vishakha does not have much to draw from the past. In 1994, after she dominated the age-group events in New Delhi, the Table Tennis Federation of India secretary Mool Chand Chowhan suggested that she move to the Petroleum Academy in Ajmer. However, in spite of the sustained coaching, Vishakha could not prove her mettle in the senior ranks.

The closest Vishakha came to winning a major title was in 2001, when she entered the final of the National Games in Jalandhar but lost to N. R. Indu. Although Vishakha has beaten all the top players of the country, she could not string together her success in one tournament, until her recent effort.

Vishakha, who was not part of the Petroleum's women's team as she was ranked only No. 7 in the country, started her campaign by dropping two games to qualifier Mansi Bhagwat of Railways before showing her fighting skills to down Tamil Nadu's J. Swarna 12-14, 9-11, 6-11, 11-5, 11-6, 11-4, 11-7. Meanwhile at the adjacent table, Vishakha's ONGC mate Madhurikaa Patkar upstaged second seed Mouma Das in straight games to clear the biggest seed from the last quarter of the draw. Vishakha went on to tame Madhurika in straight games and made the semifinals against fellow Petroleum player and third seed Nandita Saha. Once again, Vishakha pulled off the Houdini act by winning in seven games after losing the first three to Nandita. From the top quarter of the draw, Poulomi continued to progress as expected and avenged the loss suffered to Railways' Mamta Prabhu in the semifinals of the team event. The other quarter saw unseeded Mousumi Paul humble T. Pradeepa and Mantu Ghosh, seeded four and five, before running into Poulomi in the semifinal.

The Vishakha-Poulomi clash provided the final twist to the tale. Against all expectations, Vishakha kept Poulomi on a tight leash and forced the top seed to err repeatedly. Finally, it was the tenacity of Vishakha that won the day.

Vishakha Bijoy... a reward for tenacity.-R.V. MOORTHY

Among the men, Sharath was simply ruthless. An idea of his superiority could be gauged from the fact that in the quarterfinal, the semifinal and the final, he did not drop a game.

Even as Sharath was marching with predictable ease, unseeded G. Jitendra was busy putting together a sequence of surprise results in the bottom half of the draw.

After Jitendra's early exit in the inter-Railway meet kept him out of the Railway team, he proved his worth in a fitting manner. This 23-year-old South Central Railway employee based in Hyderabad started with a five-game victory over Tamil Nadu's K. Srivatsa before knocking out young Arunava Ganguly, also in five. His real test came against LIC's R. Rajesh who had progressed to the pre-quarterfinals at the expense of former National champion Arup Basak in seven games. Jitendra won the marathon battle that went the distance against Rajesh by snatching the last three games. Second seed Soumyadeep Roy waited for Jitendra in the quarterfinals. Having lost to Jitendra 2-3 in their last match during the camp held in Patiala recently, Roy was keen to set the record straight. During this close battle, the genial demeanour of Jitendra stood out in sharp contrast to the intimating ways of Roy. It is to the credit of Jitendra that he did not get provoked by Roy's aggression. Jitendra's patience paid off as he won in seven games. In the semifinals, Jitendra packed off Shibaji Dutta the man who had made it past National champion S. Raman. Raman, after losing the first two games of the quarterfinals to Dutta, conceded the tie citing a shoulder sprain.

However, in the final against Sharath, Jitendra was too tense. Once a practice partner of Sharath in the camp held by veteran G. Jagannath in Chennai, Jitendra needed no reminder that the top seed had come a long way since then. Jitendra hardly attacked against Sharath and was wiped out in just 19 minutes.

Earlier in the doubles competitions, Petroleum players had dominated the proceedings. Sharath and Ranbir Das took the men's doubles title and with T. Pradeepa won the mixed doubles final. Poulomi and Mouma came out worthy winners in the women's doubles title.

The results

Men's singles: Final: A. Sharath Kamal (Pet) bt G. Jitendra (Rlys) 11-6, 12-10, 11-9, 11-9. Semifinals: Sharath bt Shubham Chakraborty (Pet) 11-9, 11-7, 11-8, 11-7; Jitendra bt Shibaji Dutta (Pet) 15-13, 11-8, 10-12, 11-7, 8-11, 11-6.

Doubles: Final: A. Sharath Kamal & Ranbir Das (Pet) bt Sourav Chakraborty & Anirban Nandy (Rlys) 11-6, 10-12, 11-4, 13-11. Semifinals: Sharath & Das bt Aniket Koparkar & Sanil Shetty (Air India) 9-11, 11-4, 11-3, 4-11, 12-10; Chakraborty & Nandy bt Jignesh Jaiswal & Pathik Mehta (BSB) 11-7, 11-9, 12-10.

Women's singles: Final: Vishakha Bijoy (Pet) bt Poulomi Ghatak (Pet) 11-9, 4-11, 15-17, 11-9, 11-8, 11-4. Semifinals: Poulomi bt Mousumi Paul (Pet) 11-6, 6-11, 12-10, 9-11, 9-11, 11-6, 11-2; Vishakha bt Nandita Saha (Pet) 9-11, 6-11, 4-11, 11-7, 11-6, 11-9, 11-6.

Doubles: Final: Poulomi Ghatak and Mouma Das (Pet) bt T. Pradeepa and Mantu Ghosh (Pet) 11-7, 11-6, 11-6. Semifinals: Poulomi and Mouma w.o. Vishakha Bijoy and Sushmita Roy (Pet); Pradeepa and Mantu Ghosh (Pet) bt Nandita Saha and Kasturi Chakraborty 11-3, 11-4, 11-4.

Mixed doubles: Final: A. Sharath Kamal and T. Pradeepa (Pet) bt Arup Basak and Nandita Saha (Pet) 11-5, 11-9, 9-11, 11-5. Semifinals: Sharath and Pradeepa bt Arunava Ganguly and Vishakha Bijoy (PSPB) 11-5, 11-8, 11-9; Arup and Nandita bt A. Rajath Kamal and N. Arul Selvi (BSB) 8-11, 11-6, 11-7, 11-8.