Sugiyama takes the honours

IT had looked a circuit tailor-made to suit the needs of the Indian players.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Norikazu Sugiyama kisses the ITF Satellite Masters trophy. — Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

IT had looked a circuit tailor-made to suit the needs of the Indian players. It was not a strong field, and it was being played in Indore and New Delhi in the peak of summer, perhaps discouraging any possibility of energetic play at a consistent level. In the end, however, it was a Japanese who enhanced his reputation by winning the ITF Satellite circuit and with it 43 ATP points, while Pakistani Aqeel Khan made a tremendous impact with his consistently impressive fare that culminated in the final of the Masters event.

It was a British, the strongly-built Joshua Goodall who gave a hint that he would reach far in the professional world, though he had to be content finishing runner-up in the circuit along with the Pakistani, with 29 ATP points.

The Indian lads did not have much to show, but for their predictably high quality fare in the doubles event. Maybe, the singles court is too big to master for most of the Indian players who find it tough to be at their best for long even if they have a certain degree of ability. Give them half court and they look world class.

Though the Japanese Sugiyama won the third leg and the Masters, the ATP points and a good collection in terms of prize money, the real success story of the circuit was Aqeel Khan.

The 24-year-old Pakistani had been playing only the Davis Cup ties for the last five years or so. He had held only one ATP point about five years ago. The basic idea of Aqeel, who was given a wild card into the main event for the first two legs was to make a good impression, and win a few matches.

Ajay Ramaswami (left) and Vishaal Uppal who won three doubles titles in the circuit. -- Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

"I didn't come with any great expectations. Since we were being sent, we wanted to show that we can play good tennis. After the first week in Indore, I was told that I needed to win another round to make the Masters list. Overall, I am thrilled with the two semifinals and the final in the Masters. People back home have been following my progress through the media on a daily basis, and they know that there is also an Aqeel in Pakistan tennis, apart from Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi'', said Aqeel, quite pleased with his competitive fare, that would soon put him in the top-600 in the world, no mean achievement for someone who did not have a rank.

Disappointing

Of course, the amicable Pakistani was disappointed that he could not capitalise on a brilliant start in the Masters final against Sugiyama, when he blew him away in winning the first set 6-1. It was inexperience as Aqeel erred in trying to step up the pace of his strokes, rather than play within his limitations which he had done with such a telling impact for four weeks.

Aqeel twice beat Vishaal Uppal, the most successful from among the Indian lads, after having lost to the former Davis Cupper in the semifinals of the second leg. Playing his double-fisted forehand with punch and precision, Aqeel progressed nicely thanks mainly to his strong will that helped him overcome the hurdles posed by the tough conditions.

Two other players from Pakistan, Aqeel's brother Jalil Khan and Shahzad Khan did not have much success to speak about. They had to come through the qualifying event, and ended up meeting each other in the first two legs.

The heat took its toll as the British lads who swept the singles honours in the first week, failed to sustain their good work, despite their strong game. There was a purpose in the methods of the seven British players, who were well supported by two professional coaches. There was no such luxury for others, except for a lad from Hong Kong, whose coach was busy listening to music and reading a book, leaving his talented ward to fend for himself.

Joshua Goodall, who won the first leg, finished joint runner-up overall. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Vishaal Uppal, the GAIL employee, did well to win the singles title in the second week at home in Delhi, beating compatriot Vinod Sridhar. The 27-year-old Vishaal served and volleyed nicely, but lacked the power in his groundstrokes to beat someone like Aqeel in the third leg and the Masters. Yet, Vishaal had reasons to be happy with his fare, as he collected 20 ATP points in singles and 44 ATP points in doubles. In partnership with Ajay Ramaswami, Vishaal won three doubles titles after the pair had been knocked out in the first round by Rishi Sridhar and Vinod Sridhar, the eventual champions in Indore.

Like the top players, Prakash Amritraj, Rohan Bopanna, Harsh Mankad and Mustafa Ghouse, who have graduated out of the Indian Satellite and have been focussing on tougher tournaments abroad, Vishaal too would try to build on the good work at home in tournaments in the US and Canada.

Sunil Kumar looked to be settling down into a rhythm after two weeks of below par play. However, a hip strain put paid to his hopes and he had to concede the final in the third week to Sugiyama and the second round of the Masters to Ajay Ramaswami.

Otherwise, Sunil, who had reached the semifinals of a Challenger in Uzbekistan recently, had it in him to master the field. Sunil said that he would like to work better for points in the tournaments in UK, Russia and Uzbekistan.

He is another player who has been struggling to march quickly because of lack of coaching guidance.

Vinod Sridhar, who had joined ONGC recently along with Ajay Ramaswami and Vijay Kannan, had the game and the fighting spirit but was unusually cowed down in the climax of the final against Uppal in the second week which was played over two days because of rain. Thereafter, Vinod was unable to push his level above a certain degree.

Ajay benefited from two walk-overs after two games each from Sunil Kumar and Prahlad Srinath in the Masters. The lack of matches proved a handicap in the semifinal against Aqeel Khan, as Ajay was quite rusty and erratic.

Prahlad Srinath started well, as he was the only Indian to make the singles semifinal in the first week, but lacked the fitness by the fourth week to capitalise on his versatile game. The 31-year-old Srinath, working as a deputy manager with Indian Oil in Bangalore, feared that the cramps may affect his abdomen and complicate matters, as 70 per cent of his pancreas was removed about two years ago. Otherwise, Srinath had looked the best among the Indian lads, which did not speak much for the overall standard of the Indian second string.

Vishaal Uppal was the most successful of the Indians winning the singles title in the second leg. -- Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Vijay Kannan has been trapped in a web as he tries to play percentage tennis, which cannot take one far. The wiry Chennai lad used to be a much better player, but in trying to get positive results, he has compromised on the quality of his game.

In contrast, Kamala Kannan showed considerable improvement in his game and was able to combine precision with his power, which brought him reasonably rich rewards. If he continues in the same fashion, the powerful lad will be able to climb up the rankings soon.

Pathanjali Ravishankar showed a quality game and so did Ashutosh Singh.

The latter played increasingly well as the circuit progressed, and gave a hint of a bright future with a fearless game that helped him deliver the big serves in crunch situations.

Ashutosh was also able to garner 20 ATP points in doubles, along with Gurmehar Singh, another Delhi lad who has also made meaningful progress under the watchful guidance of coach Arun Kumar.

Jaco Mathew played very well till cramps got the better of him in the Masters. He, however, made the doubles final with Saurabh Kohli and provided an entertaining fare against Vishaal and Ajay.

With the invaluable points garnered from the circuit, and with their confidence boosted quite a bit, the Indian players will look for better results, quite possibly in the next Satellite circuit to be played in Pakistan.

ATP points: Singles:

Norikazu Sugiyama (Jpn) 43, Aqeel Khan (Pak) 29, Joshua Goodall (GBR) 29, Vishaal Uppal 20, Vinod Sridhar 13, Ajay Ramaswami 13, Sunil Kumar 11, Prahlad Srinath 10, Kamala Kannan 8, Vijay Kannan 7, Richad Irwin (GBR) 6, David Brewer (GBR) 6, Pathanjali Ravishankar 5, Ashutosh Singh 5, Ross Hutchins (GBR) 4, Jaco Mathew 4, Mait Kunnap (Est) 3, Hiu-Tung Yu (Hkg) 3, Mat Lowe (GBR) 2, Syed Rahil 2, Luke Campbell (GBR) 1, Saurav Panja 1, Shahzad Khan (Pak) 1.

Doubles:

Ajay Ramaswami 44, Vishaal Uppal 44, Rishi Sridhar 33, Vinod Sridhar 33, Saurabh Kohli 24, Vijay Kannan 23, Norikazu Sugiyama (Jpn) 23, Jaco Mathew 23, Ashutosh Singh 20, Gurmehar Singh 20,

Kamala Kannan 17, David Brewer (GBR) 14, Richard Irwin (GBR) 14, Hiu Tung Yu (Hkg) 13, Sunil Kumar 10, Mait Kunnap (Est) 9, Atsufumi Yoshikawa (Jpn) 8, Joshua Goodall (GBR) 2, Ross Hutchins (GBR) 2.