The biggest of his career

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

TAMIL NADU contributed two new champions to the Indian Oil-Servo sponsored senior National grasscourt tennis championship which saw some topsy-turvy results.

Manoj Mahadevan's strong serves and good returns helped him to win over Sunil Kumar in the final.-S. PATRONOBISH

Manoj Mahadevan realised a dream, winning the men's title while Sai Jayalakshmy went a step ahead with a grand double - the women's singles and doubles titles. Extending her domination in both the events in the women's section, Jayalakshmy first beat Radhika Tulpule - the top seed from Maharashtra - to lift the singles crown and then paired with the latter to add the doubles title to her kitty.

The tournament, being staged in Kolkata for the fourth consecutive year as a result of a five-year contract between Paes En Sport and All India Tennis Association, was held on the famed grass courts of the South Club.

With some players busy furthering their professional pursuits outside the country, a few fancied names were missing. Names like Prahlad Srinath, Harsh Mankad and last year's champion Mustafa Ghouse were the prominent men who skipped the meet while in the women's section the reigning champion Manisha Malhotra, last-year's runner-up Rushmi Chakravarthy did not send their entries. While the absence of a few top names might have caused embarrassment for the organisers - Paes En Sport joined this time by the Bengal Tennis Association - but that opened up the contest for the younger talents to assume prominence. There was, however, no dearth of action and main draw (of 32) saw intense contest right from the beginning as the seeded players were made to exert and earn points the hard way by their unseeded opponents. Such a thing was more evident in the men's section while the women's side saw the hierarchy enduring in the initial stages before Jayalakshmy ran riot in the final stages.

Sunil Kumar Sipaeya of Chandigarh justified his status as the most promising youngster causing the biggest upset of the tournament ousting the top seed Rohan Bopanna of Karnataka en route to a place in the last-eight. Sunil Kumar needed just an hour and 30 minutes to get the better of the top seed Bopanna, who not only looked over-confident but also appeared sluggish on the fast surface.

Sai Jayalakshmy displayed her talent and artistry to win the women's final.-S. PATRONOBISH

The second round began with fifth seeded Rishi Sridhar of Tamil Nadu bowing out to wild card entrant and last-year's runner-up Vishaal Uppal of Delhi. Uppal, who missed the greater part of the last season nursing a ligament injury, appeared in fine fettle while making his comeback after a long lay off. Sridhar was thus the first victim that Uppal had to conquer, as grass has always been the Delhi player's strength. Thus only two of the men's seeds survived to enter the semifinals. The pruning of seeds almost reached a full circle in the semifinals as Sunil Kumar continued his prodigious run in the tournament and made short work of his doubles partner Uppal in straight sets to progress to his first grasscourt final.

Mahadevan, having outlasted his state-mate and fourth seeded Vijay Kannan in a marathon quarterfinal duel, repeated against seasoned Nitin Kirtane - the Maharashtra player, seeded second, in the tournament. Playing his second successive three-setter, Mahadevan proved his solidity and beat Kirtane in a contest of temperament and endurance to face the favourite and Paes En Sport ward Sunil Kumar in the final.

Having been tempered by two hard-fought wins, Mahadevan took on the challenge of Sunil Kumar confidently. The Chennai man made few errors as he served strongly and was equally efficient with his approach shots that earned him crucial points while pinning his opponent to the baseline. Mahadevan broke Sunil Kumar for a crucial 5-4 lead and then wrapped up the first set.

The second set saw Mahadevan get an early break, but the Chandigarh left-hander showed character and resolve as he broke back Mahadevan in the eighth game and repeated in the 10th game to draw level. The decider went even till the 10th game before Mahadevan fine-tuned his net charge and back-hand sliced returns to produce a series of winners before he broke Sunil Kumar in the 11th game to ensure a well-earned triumph.

Nitin Kirtane (right) and Saurav Panja, winners of the men's doubles.-S. PATRONOBISH

The women's contest saw the top order carrying its own till the semifinals where top seeded Radhika Tulpule got a scare against fourth seeded challenger in Karnataka's Sheetal Gautam. Tulpule had to overcome a first-set deficit to beat Gautam in the decider. Third seeded Jayalakshmy swept aside second seeded Sonal Phadke of Maharashtra to put herself in the final. Jayalakshmy, who was deprived of the title in the first meeting (2000) which Tulpule had won, thus avenged the defeat.

In the final Sai Jayalakshmy, with her consistency and motivation, clearly emerged the strongest and took just sixty minutes to win a lopsided contest dominated totally by the Chennai player. Tulpule looked sluggish from the start and her movement lacked rhythm. The first set was a total wash out as Jayalakshmy won it 6-0. Jayalakshmy's strength was the success of her first-serves. She also laced her strong baseline play with confident approach to the net as and when required. Jayalakshmy continued her dominance in the second set and broke Tulpule in the first and fifth games to lead 5-1. Tulpule appeared to conjure a delayed dash of energy just as Jayalakshmy prepared to serve for the match. The Pune lass halted her opponent's march, winning a break back in the eighth game. But the effort seemed to come a bit too late as Jayalakshmy, still up a break, made no mistake with her service in the 10th game and sealed her victory.

The men's doubles saw Bengal's Saurav Panja effectively combine with Nitin Kirtane as the two showed good understanding and skills appearing in their fourth National final. They beat the combination of Sunil Kumar and Uppal in a three-setter in the semis to meet the top seeds Rohan Bopanna and Vijay Kannan, who made short work of Mahadevan and Amod Wakalkar, in the semifinals.

The final saw Panja and Kirtane show their magic against the relatively raw Bopanna and Kannan. The top seeds won the first set. The second set went to the tie-breaker where the Kirtane-Panja combine did not make any mistakes, levelled the issue and used the psychological advantage fully in the decider to win the fourth title.

In the women's section, Tulpule and Jayalakshmy, the top seeds, beat fourth seeded pair of Shruti Dhawan and Radhika Mandke of Maharashtra in straight sets while the second seeded combination of Gautam and Maharashtra's Liza Pereira beat third seeded Phadke and Ankita Bhambri to make the final a clash of the top seeds.

Sai Jayalakshmy and Radhika Tulpule, who won the women's doubles title.-S. PATRONOBISH

The final was easy for Jayalakshmy and Tulpule who encountered little difficulty in getting the better of Gautam and Liza.

The results (seedings prefixed):

Men's singles: Final: 6-Manoj Mahadevan (TN) bt Sunil Kumar Sipaeya (Chd) 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. Semifinals: Sunil Kumar bt Vishaal Uppal (Del) 7-6(7-1), 6-4; 2-Nitin Kirtane (Mah) lost to Manoj Mahadevan 6-7(1-7), 3-6, 6-3. Quarterfinals: 7-Kamala Kannan (TN) lost to Sunil Kumar 6-3, 4-6, 3-6; 3-Vinod Sridhar (TN) lost to Vishal Uppal 6-4, 1-6, 4-6; 4-Vijay Kannan (TN) lost to Manoj Mahadevan 6-4, 1-6, 6-7(5-7); Nitin Kirtane bt 8-Punna Vishal (AP) 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.

Doubles: Final: 1-Rohan Bopanna (Mah) & Vijay Kannan (TN) lost to 2-Nitin Kirtane (Mah) & Saurav Panja (Ben) 6-4, 6-7(4-7), 3-6. Semifinals: Rohan Bopanna & Vijay Kannan bt Manoj Mahadevan (TN) & Amod Wakalkar (Mah) 6-3, 6-4; Nitin Kirtane & Saurav Panja bt Sunil Kumar (Chd) & Vishaal Uppal (Del) 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(7-1).

Women's singles: Final: 1-Radhika Tulpule (Mah) lost to 3-Sai Jayalakshmy (TN) 0-6, 4-6. Semifinals: Radhika Tulpule bt 4-Sheetal Gautam 4-6, 7-5, 6-4; 2-Sonal Phadke (Mah) lost to Sai Jayalakshmy 6-2, 6-4. Quarterfinals: Radhika Tulpule bt 5-Shruti Dhawan (Chd) 6-1, 2-6, 6-3; Sheetal Gautam bt 7-Liza Pereira (Mah) 6-3, 2-6, 6-4; Sai Jayalakshmy bt 8-Radhika Mandke (Mah) 6-2, 6-0; Sonal Phadke bt 6-Archana Venkatraman (Kar) 6-4, 6-2.

Doubles: Final: 1-Sai Jayalakshmy (TN) & Radhika Tulpule (Mah) bt 2-Sheetal Gautam (Kar) & Liza Pereira (Mah) 6-2, 6-3. Semifinals: Sai Jayalakshmy & Radhika Tulpule bt 4-Shruti Dhawan (Chd) & Radhika Mandke (Mah) 6-4, 6-2; Sheetal Gautam & Liza Pereira bt 3-Sonal Phadke & Ankita Bhambri (Mah) 5-7, 6-3, 7-5.

THE grasscourt National title has been Sai Jayalakshmy's dream. She displayed the talent and artistry to win the women's National hardcourt title in 1999. But then she had to wait till 2002 for this success.

The first chance came in 2000 but her friend and doubles partner, Radhika Tulpule, walked away with the honours, leaving the Chennai lady more determined to realise the dream.

"When I played her (Radhika) in Kolkata two years back, I was extremely nervous and lost the title in a three-setter. Luckily I kept my cool this time and did not choke like last time," she said. "This was my fifth meeting against Radhika and I had lost all the four I had played against her, before," she said and added: "it was good that I produced the best game against her in the final."

The 25-year-old champion who works in the Public Relations department of the Indian Oil Corporation in Chennai, was a good advertisement for her employer as the tournament had the lubricant Servo as the sponsor.

Beginning her career with the junior National hardcourt title in 1995, Jayalakshmy added many more, winning the National Games singles gold in '97 and followed it up with the senior title in '99. She won a couple of WTA and Satellite events apart from representing the country regularly in the Federation Cup ties. She worked on her technique and service to suit her game to the challenge on grass. "My game is more dependent on timing than on power. Grass never gives you scope for artistry hence the surface is a bit alien to my style. I prepared a lot for the event and worked on my service, which is the prime weapon on grass and fortunately I could get most of my first serves in on the crucial day.

Jayalakshmy said the title renewed her confidence that was missing after a relative drought last year. "In 2000 I did really well while last year the performance was very bad. I was so psychologically upset over my performance that I never could really concentrate on my game. Recurrent injuries compounded my agonies. I changed my thinking this season. I concentrated on my game and did not worry about the circumstances. That really helped," she said hoping she will be able to carry her success for bigger achievements in future.

MANOJ MAHADEVAN feels his tennis suffered due to academics. "I lost most of the action in juniors and despite reaching the ranking of 41, could not work on the advantage due to studies. There were lots of breaks and lost my ranking. I started playing the juniors' event seriously only after appearing for the higher secondary exams, he said. Mahadevan, who will turn 21 in June, said that he has now turned towards pursuing a career in tennis. This has prevented him from appearing in the final exam.

"It is a difficult decision but I have so far weighed tennis above academics, he said. The Chennai player, who trains in the Krishnan Tennis Centre, feels winning the National grasscourt title was definitely the biggest break in his career." This gives me confidence to go for bigger exploits. I would like to use this achievement to improve my international ranking. It is around 950 now and not very good, I would like to take it to within 500."

Speaking of his performance in the final against the promising Chandigarh left-hander, Sunil Kumar, Mahadevan said he made a few errors midway through the match as he tried to finish things a bit too fast with the title in sight. I was a little excited playing the senior Nationals for the first time. In the process he congratulated the efforts of Sunil Kumar: "Being essentially a base-liner and having the style suited to hardcourt, I must admit Sunil did apply himself pretty well to reach the final. Sunil's greatest feat lay in beating top seeded Rohan Bopanna, who has been doing pretty well this season. Mahadevan was modest in admitting, "I did not come here thinking of winning the title and I was actually aiming to better my last year's performance - which was reaching the quarterfinals. Well, the title having come my way is an added incentive.

"Lack of consistency is my problem. I need more match practice to boost my confidence and performance." Mahadevan is grateful for the help and sponsorship extended to him by the Krishnan Tennis Centre: "I get my apparel and shoes from Nike while the playing gear is given by Wilson." He hoped more will come his way for having won the National event.