V. V. Subrahmanyam

IT was sweet revenge and a moment to cherish for the Thai girl, Tamarine Tanasugarn, when she outplayed an erratic Iroda Tulyaganova of Uzbekistan in the Indian Open singles final 6-4, 6-4 in 83 minutes to pick her maiden WTA Tour title. The 26-year-old gutsy customer who showed remarkable resilience throughout the event by invariably coming back after being down was clearly the superior with an impressive array of groundstrokes. Perhaps, Tamarine could not have chosen a better occasion to settle scores after losing to the same opponent in the Busan Asian Games. And she was richer by $22,000 and 95 WTA ranking points.

In a way, the final was an anti-climax as 21-year-old Tulyaganova, clearly the crowd favourite, was out of sorts. For someone who had the second fastest serve of 191 kmph to her credit in the women's circuit, the Uzbek never looked like a class player in the all-important final. Ironically, her strong-point - the stinging serve - had become the weaklink on the day when it mattered most. And worse, Tulyaganova whose amazing cross-court returns from the baseline delighted the sparse crowds right throughout the five-day event too never really came off. No doubt, she got medical attention for the blisters on her left toe mid-way through the second set. Though both traded break points initially, second-seeded Tamarine never looked back once she earned another to level the scores four-all, then held her serve and wrapped up the first set in just 29 minutes with another break-point. It was pretty obvious that the Thai player was mentally better prepared. The way she engaged Tulyaganova in baseline duels, occasionally intercepting with some brilliant cross-court returns at the net and more importantly placed her impeccable deep returns was a sight to behold.

It is not a common sight to see a player like Tulyaganova, who had the distinction of being a member of select band of five players to beat Clijsters and Davenport in the WTA circuit, getting irritated everytime she faltered. The crowd disturbance too seemed to weigh down heavily on her as there were a few spectators who trodded in the gallery behind the baseline as if they were going for an evening walk. In fact, what clearly upset the Uzbek girl with a fancy to execute the double-handed, cross-court backhand returns was the excellent court coverage of the Thai.

If one thought Tulyaganova would extend the issue into the third set, he was disappointed. This despite the fourth game going to deuce five times when there was little to separate them before the Uzbek managed to hold the serve to level the scores two-all. Then Tamarine despite coming up with an ace, was surprised by the tenacity of her rival who picked the break-point to surge ahead 3-2. Soon, it was the turn of Tamarine to pick the break point to tie the scores three-all. The vociferous crowd supporting Tulyaganova saw trading of breakpoints and the scores level at 4-all. At this crucial juncture, the Uzbek had two double-faults and soon predictably ended a loser but richer by $12,000.

Tamarine's clinical display of serve-and-volley game clearly undid the opponent so much that the final turned out to be a big disappointment to the biggest crowd in the event — courtesy, the generosity of the organisers in issuing complimentaries

Earlier in the semi-final, Tulyaganova meant business, rallying brilliantly from a first set deficit to overcome Morigami for a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win in 90 minutes. A contest which clearly put in proper perspective, but for the first set when Morigami elevated her game to a different plane with some amazing passing shots down the line from the baseline, the high quality game Tulyaganova was capable of playing. To her delight, Morigami missed out on some easy points at the net which only compounded her misery.

In the other last four encounter, Tamarine Tanasugarn ended the dream run of Flavia Penneta of Italy with a hard-fought 7-5, 6-4 win in 77 minutes. It was another instance of a player, this time around Penneta, who was so upset at a line call when the scores were tied 5-all, that she never really found the rhythm. Once Tamarine got the breakpoint to surge ahead, it didn't surprise many when she won the first set 7-5 in 41 minutes and then the second with comparative ease at 6-4. In fact, Penneta questioned the chair umpire quite often during the game and was not just focussed, while on the other hand Tamarine was cool as a cucumber and this was clearly the deciding factor. The Thai player's philosophy was simple: "To put the ball back in the court as much as possible to pick the winners.'' And, she did with stunning regularity in the second set.

The Hyderabadis were clearly disappointed at the way French star and two Grand Slam titles winner, 28-year-old Mary Pierce, was knocked out by Penneta 6-7 (4-7), 3-6 in the quarter-final. "I was the ball girl when Pierce played in an Italian tournament,'' recalled the winner proudly after the match. "I never thought I would win the match,'' she added. But this lowly ranked World No.81 thrived on the pronounced inability of Pierce to move around swiftly on the baseline. For everytime Penneta unleashed her precise and deep passing shots, they caught the famed rival off-guard repeatedly. "I had my chances to come back but I was completely sapped of my energy as I was also suffering from throat infection,'' remarked Pierce later. But, it was plain truth that she looked a pale shadow of herself as there were a few concentration lapses. Pierce, winner of 15 WTA singles and nine doubles titles, was sportive enough to acknowledge that Penneta played a brilliant game that evening. This shock defeat came after Pierce felt that she played the best tennis in recent times in disposing off Evie Dominikovic of Australia 6-1, 6-3.

The biggest casualty on the opening day was the top-seed and World No.31 Clarisa Fernandez who was shown the door by Akiko Morigami for a 6-2, 6-4 win in the first round and then third-seed Elena Likhovtseva of Russia was also knocked out by Tzipora Obziler of Israel 2-6, 3-6. Well, even fourth-seeded Mary Pierce survived a close call against Jie Cheng of China before rallying for a 6-3, 0-6, 6-3 win in the first round.

From the Indian point of view, for the two youngsters — Manisha Malhotra and Sania Mirza who made their debut in the WTA circuit, with the former making it to the main draw via qualifying rounds, while the wildcard entrant, Sania, fumbled in the second round — it was definitely a worthy experience. What caught the eye was the the way the Hyderabad girl, Sania, moved around on the court in a disdainful manner, though she lost in the first round itself. Her stunning forehand was a true revelation. By all means, she threw enough hints that she can be a player to watch in the big league. And the experience of playing doubles with Pierce (though failed to make it to the semi-final) was another important lesson which she says she will not forget easily. "It is a dream come true for me to play with someone like Pierce,'' 16-year-old Sania observed. The wonderful interceptions at the net and the way a smiling Pierce acknowledged her young partner's enthusiasm and occasional touch of class are certainly good for Indian tennis.

In the doubles final, it didn't surprise when Elena Likhovtseva and Iroda Tulyaganova recorded a 6-4, 6-4 win over Evgenia Koulikovskaya (Russia) and Taliana Poutchek (Belgium) to collect the winner's purse of $6500 each for the simple reason that Elena had won 15 doubles WTA titles and her partner three each in singles and doubles. They simply rose to the occasion and surprisingly, Tulyaganova, who about an hour before in the singles final looked a bit jaded, was back to her usual self with some stunning interceptions at the net.

IT was a moment the Thai girl, Tamarine Tanasugarn, cherishes to "freeze in memory''. And, the way she responded to the thunderous applause at the Centre Court Stadium symbolised her immense satisfaction.

Hands raised and patting the racket as if clapping to say a big "Thank You'' to the spectators for their knowledgeable support after her brilliant performance in the final against Iroda Tulyaganova which saw her pick the maiden WTA title on the tour.

And, she dedicates it to the coach, Panoomkom Pradchumir, and father, Virachai, a lawyer by profession and a double Olympian in basketball in 1960 and 1964. "This is the best moment of my life,'' Tamarine told The Sportstar immediately after her magnificent, title-triumph.

The 26-year-old Thai star performer, who has a unique record of making it to the fourth round of Wimbledon in the last five years on the trot, is now engaging herself in a "super dream of winning the most prestigious championship. I know that it is not all that easy to achieve that goal despite the fact that I will be playing on my favourite surface, the grass court,'' she confessed. "But that is the ultimate for me as a tennis player,'' she asserted. Why she failed to advance beyond the fourth round? "Well, on two occasions I ran into big names like Martina Hingis and Serena Williams. It was never easy playing them there on the court,'' she recalled with a hearty smile. She acknowledges that she has to improve a lot on her serve to be a much better player.

Commenting on her WTA Indian Open win, Tamarine said: "Honestly, I didn't expect to win this title when I started my campaign. Only when I reached the semi-final did I scent the sweet fragrance of victory. Even then, I knew it is not going to be easy against Iroda in the final. She is a classy player. But fortunately, my serve and groundstrokes clicked in the final,'' the Thai girl remarked.

Interestingly, Tamarine feels that this title should give her the much needed confidence for the rest of the season. She is an unabashed admirer of Monica Seles. "Seles is an extraordinary personality off the court. She was super whenever I had engaged her in long chats,'' Tamarine says with a beaming face. The best part of Tamarine's growing stature on tennis circuit is that she takes immense pride to be a Thai despite holding dual citizenship of United States and Thailand. "No matter I was born in United States. But the fact that I grew up in Thailand is more important. And, my King is another personality whom I adore the most. He is like a father to all of us, always encouraging sportspersons especially,'' explains Tamarine. And apart from winning Wimbledon, this solid player who is as cool as cucumber on the tennis court even in adversity, is also eagerly awaiting for the moment to meet the King. "Honestly, I am happy that an Asian country is hosting the WTA Open. This is the only way the Asian players can be helped to improve their game. I sincerely hope many more WTA events will be held in this region,'' she commented to another query.

She signed off thanking the crowd and the officials for their wonderful hospitality during her stay in Hyderabad for the Indian Open which also saw her "get a real feel of the amazing depth and diversity in culture.''

IT was a touching gesture when Premjit Lall, confined to the wheelchair since 1993 after an accident, was brought to the Centre Court stadium during the WTA Indian Open in Hyderabad. He was presented a purse of Rs. 4.11 lakhs by the organisers, Globosport, in recognition of his genius. Lall was synonymous with India's Davis Cup campaigns for close to two decades in the 50's and 60's besides recording some stunning wins over contemporary big names including Manuel Santana. He also formed one of the most feared doubles combinations in the circuit partnering Jaideep Mukherjea and Ramanathan Krishnan.

To his credit, in these times of adversity, Premjit Lall is not cribbing at being denied anything. At the most, he finds fault only with cruel fate which forced him to sit and definitely look back at his heyday with pride and satisfaction. He is not one of those celebrities who earned fame and money in abundance and yet complain of being neglected. Even now, he is not running around for any help nor does he intend to by feeding media about his plight.

In an era when showmanship is the order of the day, Premjit Lall presents a unique facet of Indian sport. He played for the true love of the sport with rare patriotic fervour when there was very little in terms of returns to the players.

This 62-year-old gentleman, whose radiant face still gives a glimpse of what he would have been in younger days, interestingly says: "I am enjoying life and have absolutely no regrets.'' Clearly, defying his plight which has him even struggling to communicate proper<147,1,7>ly. Amazingly, he keeps track of modern day tennis, courtesy television. "My earlier favourite was Pete Sampras, now it is Andre Agassi,'' he says with a big smile.

"I am honoured,'' Premjit Lall remarked referring to the wonderful gesture. This despite the plain truth that the only income for this gentleman is the monthly stipend of Rs. 5,000 being given by the All India Tennis Association. Neither the Central Government, which had stopped sometime back the nominal pension of Rs. 1500 (and later hiked to Rs. 2,500) for reasons best known to it nor the West Bengal State Government have done anything great in recognition of this truly outstanding player. It is a different issue that Premjit belongs to that rare category which is never in search of a favour. For him, the big motivating factor is the long wait to see his son and daughter, who are settled in England and come to see him once in two or three years.

Thanks to the wonderful gesture of an Orissa gentleman, Narender Das, who has been doubling up as loyal attendant for a decade now, the ace player of yesteryears has not much to worry in terms of being attended to. "The first time I met him was in Kolkata Club. Then he was okay. But soon he was hospitalised for a month. Then I decided to take care of him as I would have done to my father, says a modest Narender. A rarity in these days when money makes all the difference.

Significantly, his memory has not diminished as he could easily recollect the names of some of the `oldies' who played with or against him at the hospitality centre at the SAAP Tennis Complex. Now, mostly he is accompanied by his younger brother, Ajit Lall. Commenting on the game today, Premjit Lall says there cannot be any comparison. "Now, the standard is very high. And there are so many youngsters taking up the sport, '' he added.

And the great man from Kolkata was delighted to see his old friend and former Davis Cupper S. P. Misra visit him in his hotel room to share their experiences. Misra, one of the finest gentlemen players ever from Hyderabad, has this to say about his illustrious senior: "His personality itself was magnetic. Leave apart his game — mind you he had a lovely serve and was brilliant in the serve-and-volley game. We had difficulty in controlling the crowds which used to throng him all over the world.'' Well, those were the days when Premjit Lall needed a security cover to stop female fans!. Though he insists that he has no regrets, even a cursory glance depicts a different picture. Certainly, he needs some solace in the twilight of his career.