Shuai Peng rises to the occasion

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

SHUAI PENG pipped Sunitha Rao at the post in a contest between 16-year-olds, after older, higher ranked players had fallen by the wayside. An unseeded Chinese faced an eighth-seeded Florida-born Indian, representing the United States, in the final of the $ 10,000 International Tennis Federation's Women's Futures in Mumbai.

Shuai Peng proudly displays her trophy.-ATUL KAMBLE

Peng appeared to have a mental edge, her confidence boosted by positive memories of their previous clash two years ago in a Louisiana junior event. The young Chinese knew that the American-Indian was beatable. Sunitha lost only two sets in the whole tournament spread over a week, incidentally both happened in the final, down 3-6 in the first followed by 6-7(3) in the second set tie-breaker.

The Chinese, rarely showing any emotions in the course of a thrilling one hour, 25 minute title clash, except a raised eyebrow or shrug of shoulders over doubtful line-calls, was overflowing with joy after the victory, understandable for an unseeded player going the full distance, ending up with a rich booty of Rs. 74,880 and five WTA points. The language barrier prevented Peng from expressing her feelings after collecting the winner's cheque, but the sparkle was visible.

Coach Pan Bing, a two-time Asian Games men's gold medallist, spoke with satisfaction after Peng's final show, rising way above rankings (515) and rating as an unknown in the 32-player singles draw. " Peng's footwork had not been as fast as her tennis hands. She was getting the ball across, but not moving the way she should. I talked to her about it after the semifinal. She did it in the final," he said.

Dominika Luzarova (left) and Annabel Blow, winners of the doubles title.-ATUL KAMBLE

The 16-year-old from Hunan, once rated among China's top juniors and now one of the leading six seniors, is eyeing for a place in the national women's squad for the Pusan Asian Games. Coach Beng, who observed that the Chinese women's tennis squad stood a better chance than the men of winning an Asian Games medal, hopes Peng will get there if she maintains the current rate of progress.

Peng certainly rose to the occasion in Mumbai, playing on the hardcourts of the Ranade Tennis Centre, banking on backhands, deceptive and penetrative, hit with minimal backswing to dominate the proceedings. She went unnoticed till a hard-earned 1-6, 7-6(5), 6-3 victory over Thailand's Suchanan Viratprasert, seeded sixth, in the semifinals.

Sunitha Rao is a tough opponent to take on in any situation because she doesn't give up and can hit powerfully under pressure. Peng did not get any respite in the final, till the latter part of the second set tie-breaker. The unseeded Chinese saw her opponent fighting back to draw level twice, 4-4 and 6-6 in the second set, before tightening up her game to close out the match.

The champion's resilience and the American-Indian's attacking approach on big points throughout the event, contrasted with strugglers higher up in the draw. Top seed Shelley Stephans of New Zealand, ranked 280, went out in the second round against unseeded Hsiao-Han Chao of Chinese- Taipei. Second seed Manisha Malhotra of India, dogged by problems with serve and leg injury, lasted till the quarterfinals before fifth seed Camilla Kremer ended her misery in the tournament.

Sunitha Rao plays power tennis and is aggressive on court.-ATUL KAMBLE

The other 13 Indians in the main draw were out of the picture after two rounds, unseeded Sheetal Gautam drawing Peng in the second round and wild card Sania Mirza pitted against runner-up Sunitha in the opener. Indians saved face in the doubles, second seeded pair of Sai Jayalakshmy and Rushmi Chakravarthi advancing to the semifinals before losing to the combination of Dominika Luzarova and Annabel Blow, 6-1, 7-6(6). The fourth seeds went on to clinch the title, sharing a purse of Rs. 30,000 and five WTA points, as against Rs. 16,380 and four points for the runner-up Hsiao-Han Chao/ Kumiko Iljima.

Women's singles (final): Peng Shuai (China) bt 8-Sunitha Rao (India) 6-3, 7-6(3). Semifinals: P. Shuai bt 6-Suchanan Viratprasert (Thailand) 1-6, 7-6(5), 6-3; S. Rao bt 5-Camilla Kremer (Luxembourg) 6-2, 6-3.

Women's doubles (final): 4-Annabel Blow (Great Britain)/ Dominika Luzarova (Czech Republic) bt Hsiao-Han Chao (Chinese Taipei)/ S. Viratprasert (Tha) 6-4, 6-3. Semifinals: A. Blow/ D. Luzarova bt Sai Jayalakshmy/ Rushmi Chakravarthy (India) 6-1, 7-6(6); H. Chao/ S. Viratprasert bt Kumiko Iljima (Japan)/ Tzu-Ting Weng (C. Taipei) 6-2, 6-2.

Sunitha Rao is here to stay

RACISM is an ugly word in the United States, but is also a fact of life. For a 16-year-old Florida-born Indian tennis talent wanting to make a mark out there, options are limited - either tolerate it or ignore it. Sunitha Rao has chosen the latter path, turning professional on her father Manohar Rao's advice and working her way on the highly-competitive Futures circuit, the ITF women's tournament in Mumbai being her first event in India.

"Sunitha was born and brought up in the U.S. At one stage she was one of the top juniors in her age group and even toured with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) squad to all the junior Grand Slams," informs Manohar, a one-time amateur footballer in Chennai, who was also into amateur boxing before moving to the U.S. for management studies. "She reached the junior Australian Open semifinals last year, so playing for the U.S. is not ruled out, but there is discrimination against her, maybe because of her colour."

"The USTA is supportive, but there are people behind the scene working against her, promoting white players", he said. "The support from American corporates too is not as expected, compared to what the other American tennis players are getting. So we thought of turning professional, so that Sunitha can work out her own future without coming under any sort of control. We contacted the Tata Open people for an entry, but were told it is a men's event. That is how we became aware of an ITF Futures women's tournament in India."

Sunitha, who feels there is still time for her to decide which nation she will represent, came to the Mumbai event as the eighth seed, ranked 460, reaching as far as the singles final, beating wild card Sania Mirza, qualifier Aiko Nakamura, fourth seed Dominika Luzarova and fifth seed Camilla Kremer on the way. China's Shuai Peng foiled her title aspirations on India debut, but there is no doubt that Sunitha Rao is here to stay on the women's circuit.

The Mumbai traffic was a culture shock for her, having grown up in the laidback environs of Bradenton, Florida near the Bolletierri Tennis Academy, where the family moved in 1991 from New York. "The cars on Mumbai roads always seem to be in a hurry," remarked Sunitha, who loves Indian food. The American influence is very strong in her tennis, the power play, mobility and aggression on court, a refreshing change from what has been described as women's tennis in India.

"I have been taught to play that way," observed Sunitha, who bounces about on court, is athletic enough to get within range of every return and hit punishing ground strokes. Comfortable slugging it out from the baseline or catching rivals off-guard at the net, her battle for a point begins with the serve or service return. "I used to admire Steffi Graf, now I like Kim Clijsters and Jelena Dokic, both attacking baseliners like me. My father is a big influence, now as coach."

"She was always peculiar as a child, hyper-active at parties even at night when other children would be sleeping. At three, she used to hit the balls when I played recreational tennis. Within no time she got a hang of it. So at six, I got her tennis evaluation done to find out her aptitude. The results were encouraging," says Manohar, who quit his job in the New York garment industry to set up base in Florida, where he got into retailing business, so that he could find time for Sunitha.

Johnnie Brown is her personal coach and after turning pro, Manohar intends setting up a website in Sunitha's name to put out all information about his daughter on the net, the site address being www.sunitharao.net. "All this costs money. Last year alone, I spent about $80,000 on Sunitha's tennis. I am hopeful of Indian corporates with American connections or the other way round showing interest," said this Master of Business Administration from the University of San Diego, now a tennis father, convinced the stars are in his daughter's favour. "She was born on a full moon day. I believe in astrology and consider that as an auspicious sign."

The runner-up cheque of Rs. 46,800 will come in handy for Sunitha to partly offset the India expenses of the duo. A title would have been the ideal way to make a mark but finishing second (for four WTA points) has certainly sparked off curiosity and interest in another father-daughter team on the circuit.