SUNIL AND ISHA step back to step ahead

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

THE question all along has been `why have the top players not been playing the national championship in tennis?' It was generally agreed that it was just a stepping-stone for aspirants to launch their respective careers, so that they can go ahead and make the millions in the international arena, and that there was no need to step back to play the national championship every year.

However, for once, one was left wondering as to why Sunil Kumar — who had emerged the national men's champion as a 16-year-old way back in 1999 — had to come back to the national championship. Especially after four weeks of intense competition in the ITF Satellite circuit in which he had done well to gather 30 ATP points.

Maybe, had he not thought about competing in the national championship, the 22-year-old Sunil may have gone all out in the Masters and possibly won the circuit itself; as he had already won one and finished runner-up in another in the previous two legs.

Obviously the financial stakes are important — particularly for someone like Sunil who has not had the support that his talent warranted. Keeping this in mind, it was a sensible decision as the prize money for the winner of the men's title was a not-so-inconsiderable sum of one lakh rupees — as opposed to the gruelling Satellite circuit, in which Sunil collected only about Rs.75,000 for four weeks of blood, sweat and toil.

In fact, the fatigue following the Satellite circuit had resulted in Sunil dropping a set each against Purav Raja in the first round and Ashutosh in the final. In terms of sheer numbers, he was getting more money for beating a lower-ranked player than what he got for an average week's wages in the Satellite circuit!

Having said that, Sunil played the national championship for more reasons than just money. He was looking to catch the eye and garner some attention; something the international events were not getting him, despite his doing well in them.

"I need to get better training and need to play more tournaments. I need the sponsors, and the best way to get the attention is by winning the national championship", said Sunil with alarming simplicity.

Ranked fifth behind, Harsh Mankad (227), Prakash Amritraj (272), Rohan Bopanna (301) and Karan Rastogi (362), Sunil can indeed nurse ambitions of getting into the Davis Cup team, especially for the tie against Korea to be played in February on, possibly, a slow surface — as the Koreans would play host.

The Chairman of the Chandigarh Lawn Tennis Association (CLTA), Rajan Kashyap, who had tried his best to push Sunil into the higher echelons of the game, said that the Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh would provide financial support to re-launch the 22-year-old lad's career.

The story was similar for Isha Lakhani. The 20-year-old Mumbai girl was the last Indian to beat Sania Mirza — in a $25,000 event in Mumbai — but has not been able to make it to the next level.

Isha had won a triple crown in the national championship in 2002, and winning a double crown this time she hoped would get her the support that she so desperately needs to compete in a lot more international tournaments.

"My parents have been supporting me, and I have been training hard with coach Hemant Bendre. I hope to avoid injuries and stay focused on the game", said Isha, who won the doubles with Sonal Phadke.

A string of injuries that have been keeping Isha away from the tennis court and this has been the biggest stumbling block for her so far. Otherwise, the petite Isha has a big heart and the game to break into the top 100. Which is why it was quite encouraging to see Isha playing so well throughout the DSCL National championship where she beat Radhika Tulpule, Vishika Chhetri, Anushree Thamanna, Shalini Sahoo and her doubles partner Sonal.

If you look carefully at the results you will notice that Isha beat a player who is fast becoming a full-fledged coach, Radhika, and three qualifiers before facing token resistance from the second-seeded Sonal — who missed two set points in the second set — to pocket Rs. 80,000.

Evidently, it pays to play the national championship — the money can be used to play a couple of international events. Different folks have different reasons for playing in the National championship. Much the same way those who skip it have their justifications for doing so. At the end of the day, as always, it's up to the players to decide what's best for them.

Fresh talent, fresh hopes

Arnav Jain played an all-round game and crowned himself the national under-18 champion. The 11th standard student from Narsee Monjee College of Commerce, Mumbai, did not drop a set on his way to the title.

Arnav, who is coached by Enrico Piperno at the CCI centre, won 45 out of 52 games in the five qualifying matches. He then went on to win six rounds, including the scalp of top-seeded Sumit Prakash Gupta in the semifinals. "For quality, I would pick that match against Sumit. Today I played solid", said Arnav after beating the Chanidgarh lad, Kinshuk Sharma in the final.

"I enjoyed every match. I never thought I would win the title. I just enjoyed my tennis. I need to work on my second serve", said Arnav.

The 16-year-old revealed that his coach had already asked him to play the men's events and strike a 60/40 ratio between junior and men's events.

The national girls champion, Poojashree Venkatesh was quite authoritative in her taming of the top-seed, Madura Ranganathan in the semifinals, and the newly crowned national junior champion in the Adidas event in Chennai, G. K Shweta, in the final.

Except for dropping a set in to Shweta, the fourth-seeded Poojashree who had won the under-14 title last year, played a good game. In fact, she beat the semifinalist of the women's event, Shalini Sahoo, in the quarterfinals of the junior event for the loss of just four games.

The towering Poojashree, with an enviable height for a 15-year-old Indian girl, was confident about her game — as she had won back to back ITF junior titles in Chennai and Hyderabad in the run-up to the National championship in Delhi. The future of the game looks bright and in good hands.

Size isn't everything

He may lack the physical strength, but Yuki Bhambri is special. The frail lad is a delight to watch as he plots the fall of much bigger and stronger opponents with a charming approach. He is as quick on his head as he is on his feet, and the combination is quite lethal.

Though he was seeded seventh, Yuki won the under-14 title quite convincingly in the DSCL National sub-junior tennis championship to highlight the fact that he was the best in his age group.

The younger brother of Ankita and Sanaa Bhambri, Yuki was able to showcase his ability in a strong field of 64 that had the who's who of the game in the country. Along with his cousin Prateek, Yuki also went on to win the doubles title.

Coach Aditya Sachdeva has been training the lad well and was glad that his ward was able to grasp the points quickly. More importantly, his ward showed that he was close to perfection when it came to executing the ideas on court.

For starters, Yuki dropped only six games through the first four rounds. He outplayed the second seed Shiva Sangwan of Chandigarh 6-1, 6-0 in the quarterfinals. Even against the strongly built Mansingh Athare in the final, Yuki was quite composed and went about his demolition job with confidence and poise.

Yuki has already represented the country in under-14 competitions and, thanks to that sharp mind, he promises to get better with every outing. If he grows physically stronger, he will be a very tough opponent to beat.

It was equally heartening to see the diminutive Rashmi Teltumbe swing the match around after having lost the first set at love in the final of the girls under-14 event. Pitted against the left-handed Soniya Dayal, a better stroke-player, Rashmi showed that it needed more than just good strokes to win a match, especially the final. In the process, she highlighted the fact that the better players are mentally tough.

Good players will tell you that mental toughness has a lot to do with the number of matches you play. Toughness only comes with more match play, and not just by training hard. It showed. So while Soniya performed brilliantly to put it across the top-seed, Prerna Bhambri in the semifinals, she didn't have adequate match practice to be able to carry that form into the final against Rashmi.

Luckily for players like Soniya, there are many tournaments for the juniors these days. If they combine efficient training with good competitive exposure, both at the national and international level, the likes of Yuki, Rashmi and Soniya are sure to make rapid strides.

The only worry now is how quickly they can develop physically and become stronger — in the meantime, they will have to be that much quicker on their feet and fit enough to stay on court longer. For, as Yuki and Rashmi demonstrated, the physically stronger are better off not getting carried away by sheer power.