INDIAN women's tennis is at the crossroads. Barring Sania Mirza there is not a single player who is able to inspire confidence. While there is plenty of talent and potential in the juniors, the girls have not been able to put it together at the senior level due to a variety of factors. There is a section of the tennis fraternity, which feels that Indians in an attempt to ape the foreigners' power game lose out on their inherent strengths — the deft placements, the touch game. Some feel that without the power game, which is the norm today, the Indians cannot go far.
In such a confused scenario, it came as no surprise that none of the Indians (Samrita Sekar reached the quarterfinals), reached the semifinals of the Madras Gymkhana Club ITF $10,000 women's championship at the club courts in Chennai recently. But an Asian displaying a good mixture of aggressive baseline play and fine retrieving skills, went on to win the championship.
Twenty-year-old Suchanan Viratprasert of Thailand, a short and stout girl showed enough patience to grind her opponents. Suchanan made it a no-contest final defeating a jaded Varana-Marie Beller of Germany 6-2, 6-2 in an hour and two minutes. Suchanan had an easy passage till she met the Austrian Eva Hoch. Ranked 858 in the world, and just one year into the circuit, Hoch gave a fine exhibition of power tennis.
Losing the first set 3-6, Suchanan fought back angling Hoch's powerful shots to the corners of the court. The tactics worked as the Thai won with relative ease the next two sets at 6-3, 6-3. Having strong legs, Suchanan moved with agility. Apart from the innate doggedness, what helped Suchanan win her fourth ITF women's title was her return of serves. Against a pretty good server like Hoch, Suchanan returned well.
Suchanan breezed past Megha Vakharia 6-4, 6-3 in the first round, then trounced Liza Pereira 6-0, 6-1, before fighting it out with Hoch in the quarterfinals.
Hoch accounted for Radhika Tulpule, champion at the same courts two years ago. Though the Indian rallied from 2-5 to level the scores in the second set, the Austrian edged past Radhika in a close tiebreaker. Hoch emerged a 6-4, 7-6 (8-6) winner.
An Asian open finalist in 2002, qualifier Ivanna Israilova reached the semifinals without fuss, but against Suchanan who played a smart baseline game, there was little the Uzbek could do. Suchanan won 6-4, 6-2.
Beller, a media shy 18-year-old from Frankfurt, who was accompanied by her father Helmut, made a quiet entry to the final. The German does not have any weapons, so to say. Playing a percentage game from the baseline, Beller gave a good account of herself. A semifinalist in the $10,000 tournament at Pune in December last year, she overcame a fighting Isha Lakhani in three sets. However she grabbed the headlines when she put it across the top seeded Rushmi Chakravarthi of India in the quarterfinals.
Beller was troubled by qualifier Elena Vesnina of Russia in the semis. The two were engaged in a tiring baseline duel even as they produced 29 double faults; Vesnina's share being 15, and Beller's 14. Beller managed to score a 6-4, 7-6 (7-2) win.
Though it was widely expected that Suchanan would win the title, very few thought that it would be so tame. Dominating from the first point, Suchanan, who was calm throughout, dominated the rallies. The German girl in her first final never played to her potential as she came up with numerous unforced errors. Nine double faults only added to her woes.
An Indian has been responsible for Suchanan's rise in the international circuit. Thirty four-year-old Zubin Engineer has been able to transform Suchanan who "was content to put the ball in the court" into an aggressive backcourt player. Zubin started his coaching career with the BAT tennis foundation. After two years, he moved out in 1991.
After coaching stints at various places in India, Zubin then found his home in Thailand. For the last five years, Zubin has been coaching youngsters, and with Suchanan since November last, he has been able to improve her rankings from the 600s to 421 in just three months. With the win, her ranking is bound to touch 300.
While it was ecstasy for Suchanan, it was not so for the top-seeded Indian doubles pair. Rushmi and Sai Jayalakshmi, who disappointed in the singles, failed to assuage the feelings of the fans in the doubles.
Having won 13 ITF titles together in different parts of the world and with an experience of playing in different surfaces, none expected such a performance from them in the summit clash. Against a scratch pair — Akgul Amanmuradova and Ivanna Israilova of Uzbekistan — the Indian pair went down without an iota of fight 4-6, 1-6 in 66 minutes.
Suchanan's fourth singles title has opened new vistas for her, and coach Zubin said the priority from now on would be to push Suchanan's rankings by playing in more $25,000 tournaments. "It feels great to win the title here. This is my first win this year. I expected a tougher match, but maybe she (Beller) was tired," said Suchanan.
The Indian juniors show enough promise but once they enter the women's domain, everything seems to be lost. The transition period is crucial, and coaches need to address the problem. Unless the transition is effected smoothly, Indian tennis, women's in particular, will remain where it is now.The results (Indian unless specified):
Singles: (Final): 2-Suchanan Viratprasert (Tha) bt Varana-Marie Beller (Ger) 6-2, 6-2; (Semifinals): Suchanan bt Ivanna Israilova (Uzb) 6-4, 6-2; Beller bt Elena Visnena (Rus) 6-4, 7-6 (7-2).
Doubles (Final): 2-Akgul Amanmuradova & Israilova (Uzb) bt 1-Rushmi Chakravarthi & Sai Jayalakshmi 6-4, 6-1; (Semifinals): Rushmi & Sai bt Wilawan Choptang & Montinee Tangphong (Tha) 7-5, 7-6 (7-2); Amanmuradova & Israilova (Uzb) bt Maki Arai (Jpn) & Suchanan (Tha) 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.