The harsh reality of lack of fitness

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

TENNIS at the Satellite Futures and Challenger levels is a tough grind. You not only need to have the best of basics, a shrewd mind and a strong self-belief but also top physical fitness.

Pavel Ivanov... the champion.-SANDEEP SAXENA

In fact, fitness is the key, to make the progress to the higher levels. No matter the advantage you may have in terms of the other traits, a lack of 100 per cent fitness may mean defeat, never mind whether you are playing the world No. 200 or 783.

Harsh Mankad, the Davis Cupper who has the distinction of playing top players such as Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, realised that it was tough to overcome a bout of cramps even if you had the iron will to face the challenge from some of the best players of the world across the net.

It was a rather disappointing climax for Harsh and many of his fans at the CLTA Stadium, when the young man failed to drive home the advantage when he was up two breaks at 4-1 in the decider, in the final of the BSNL $10,000 ITF Futures tennis tournament in Chandigarh.

Eventually, Harsh went down to the unseeded and unknown Pavel Ivanov of Russia, ranked 783 in the world, 5-7, 6-4, 5-7 in a battle that lasted 3 hours and 21 minutes. In a contest that featured as many as 267 points, it was Harsh's inability to serve well that put paid to his hopes of adding a second Futures title to his collection.

"Even when I led 4-1, I knew I was in trouble", said Harsh, as his legs had started cramping by then, leading to an anticlimactic finish.

It was his fault that he allowed the match to meander so long, for Harsh was clearly the better player, though his opponent was a strong baseliner.

"I didn't want to get into a grinding contest from the baseline", Harsh said, but his inability to serve as well as he can, meant that he could not approach the net as often as he would have liked. Otherwise, Harsh had served and volleyed with a touch of class in the earlier rounds.

Right from the days when he won the National junior title in Patna in 1995, if there had been one point that was quite glaring, it was Harsh's lack of physical strength. All along he has had tennis acumen, but what he needs urgently is the fitness of a champion.

Unlike most others who have been to the U.S. on tennis scholarship, Harsh has not improved his physique and retains the boyish frame. There is no doubt that he has been working very hard on improving his fitness, but there is equally no doubt that he needs to work a lot more.

It has to be conceded that Harsh was also emotionally drained after beating two of the strong Indian players, Mustafa Ghouse and the big-serving Rohan Bopanna in the earlier rounds.

The 809th ranked Harsh was a class act, under the floodlights, when he tamed the third-seeded Mustafa Ghouse in straight sets in the first round. Having lost to Mustafa in a similar tournament in Delhi a few weeks earlier, Harsh was charged up to set the record straight, and he did so in the second set tie-break.

Later, in the semifinals, after he had pushed aside the likes of Ashutosh Singh and Punna Vishal for the loss of five games in all, Harsh played a neat game to get past the top-seeded Rohan Bopanna.

It was another case of lack of fitness, as the 352nd ranked Bopanna, the Asian championship runner-up, found his serving arm hurting, and failed to deliver the big serves. This saw his challenge petering out into a damp squib.

Bopanna did try to compensate with his groundstrokes, but the lack of sting in his serve meant that he was only half as good.

"The arm has been hurting, and I need to take rest. I did play well in the earlier rounds, but could not lift my arm in the semifinal. I am pulling out of the next two tournaments, will rest and get ready for the Challengers in Japan and Thailand", said Bopanna. He sounded quite confident of overcoming the temporary setback.

As against Mustafa, Harsh had lost to Bopanna in their last meeting, in the final of the Futures tournament in Chennai. So, it was pay back time once again.

The third player of considerable potential in the Indian ranks, who won his maiden Futures title recently, the left-handed Sunil Kumar was also a victim of lack of fitness, as he went down in three sets to the eventual champion, Ivanov, in the second round.

It was once again a case of cramps, and it was surprising that the lads kept suffering bouts of it, despite the fine weather in Chandigarh at this time of the year.

Sunil had conceded his match in the National championship the previous week to Kamala Kannan, and it was a dangerous trend for the talented lad, who should be firing on all cylinders at this stage of his career, at there is a strong race for the slots in the Davis Cup squad. Sunil did his case a world of good by clinching the doubles title with Ajay Ramaswami, against the top-seeded Bopanna and Vijay Kannan.

Bopanna decided to continue playing the doubles after the abortive singles exercise, as he did not have to serve so much. In fact, he did not drop the serve in the semifinals and the final of the doubles.

Among others, Vijay Kannan had his chances against the second-seeded Juraj Hasko of Slovakia, but failed to deliver the knock-out punch in the quarterfinals as he tended to rely more on his sliced backhand, and left too much to chance.

Earlier, Saurav Panja had five match points against Hasko, but could not capitalise on them. He eventually conceded the match after two games in the decider, as he was exhausted. Having played a long three-setter against Vishal Uppal the previous night, Panja was obviously not able to be at his best in the morning, especially when the match dragged on into the decider.

It was a similar case for Kamala Kannan, as he had Hasko on the mat, before running short of energy in the second and third sets when he managed to win just one game.

The heavier balls made it difficult for players to stroke with usual ease, and Hasko was one player who struggled through the tournament. It was thus no surprise, that Hasko was thrashed by Ivanov in the semifinals, when the latter dropped a mere three games.

The inability to win the singles title apart, the Indian lads did well to overcome the foreign challenge, right from the qualifying stage, when seven of the eight slots were grabbed by them in a draw of 64 that featured 16 foreign entries.

Punna Vishal was one qualifier who showed a lot of guts and class as he overcame two foreigners, including the seventh-seeded Boris Borgula of Slovakia, in the main draw.

The strongly-built Ajay Ramaswami, the reigning National Games champion, has been improving with every match, and had a good fight against the eighth-seeded Jan Masik of the Czech Republic before going down in three sets in the second round, as the latter could play well at the net.

In the overall scenario, in which some have good tennis and some have good fitness, it is obviously Rohan Bopanna who stands out with his strong frame and an equally strong game. He did blast some of the opponents in the earlier rounds, and once he recovers from his injury, he should be taking the next step, from among the second string.

The likes of Harsh Mankad, Mustafa Ghouse, Sunil Kumar and Vijay Kannan have to really pull their socks up to catch up with Bopanna, whose ranking speaks for him.

It is time a couple of Indian players rose above the Futures level to make a mark at the Challenger level. Otherwise, they will get caught in the whirlpool, and keep struggling against unseeded and unknown opponents, who hit the ball strongly.

For players like Ivanov, who have struggled in Europe in the qualifying events, it is a big boon to play in India in relatively weak fields, and they tend to grab the chances with both hands.

It is indeed a huge reward for such players to get 1300 dollars and 12 ATP points, for a week's toil.

The results:

Singles (final): Pavel Ivanov (Rus) bt Harsh Mankad 7-5, 4-6, 7-5; semifinals: Harsh Mankad bt Rohan Bopanna 6-3, 6-4; Pavel Ivanov bt Juraj Hasko (Svk) 6-1, 6-2; Quarterfinals: Rohan Bopanna bt Evgueni Smirnov (Rus) 6-1, 6-1; Harsh Mankad bt Punna Vishal 6-2, 6-2; Pavel Ivanov bt Jan Masik (Cze) 7-6, (7-4), 6-3; Juraj Hasko bt Vijay Kannan 6-4, 5-7, 6-4.

Doubles (final): Ajay Ramaswami and Sunil Kumar bt Rohan Bopanna and Vijay Kannan 7-6 (7-5), 6-2; Semifinals: Rohan Bopanna and Vijay Kannan bt Somdev Dev Varman and Jaco T. Mathew 6-1, 6-4; Ajay Ramaswami and Sunil Kumar bt Pavel Ivanov and Evgueni Smirnov (Rus) 6-2, 6-2.