The popularity is growing

It had not happened at home for some time. Two international tennis tournaments in a row had never failed to produce an Indian singles champion in recent times.

Kamesh Srinivasan

It had not happened at home for some time. Two international tennis tournaments in a row had never failed to produce an Indian singles champion in recent times. However, the growing popularity of such events in India meant that Rohan Bopanna, Harsh Mankad and company could not assert the Indian domination against quality international opposition in the 10,000-dollar ITF Futures tournaments in Lucknow and Delhi.

Dmitri Vlasov of Russia, the winner of the New Delhi event.-- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

While it was the athletic and attacking game of Dmitri Vlasov of Russia that put paid to Bopanna's hopes in the final of the event in Delhi, it was the equally energetic display by Todor Enev of Bulgaria that humbled Harsh Mankad in a thrilling three-setter on grass in the semifinals in Lucknow.

Now, Bopanna and Harsh are two of the best we have to offer in such events, and their failure to come good in the climax was a bit disappointing for home fans who had got used to the good work of these two, along with a clutch of others like Sunil Kumar, Vinod Sridhar and Vishaal Uppal who have all won international singles titles in recent months.

The big-serving Bopanna, the Coorgi lad who had beaten the 83rd ranked Hyung-Taik Lee of Korea in a Challenger in December, was expected to beat the challenge from the temperamental second-seed Vlasov. However, it was Vlasov who called the shots after it was 4-4 in the first set.

Bopanna's first serves did not click and his strokes lacked the sting. It was thus no surprise that the 387th ranked fifth-seed won only one game after it was 4-4. There were bad calls that went either way, but they did not dampen the spirit of the Russian, who had won such titles five times before. For the home fans, the battle between Bopanna and Harsh in the semifinal was a treat. There has been a strong argument for some time that Bopanna deserved to play the second singles in Davis Cup along with Leander Paes. But captain Ramesh Krishnan has been quite convinced in his faith placed on Harsh, which meant that the latter got to play against the likes of Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt while the former was left to warm the bench.

Rohan Bopanna went down in straight sets in the final. -- Pics. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

Thus, whenever Harsh and Bopanna meet, which they have done three times, there is a general expectation that the two would push their level up considerably to prove their worth.

Bopanna was cruising this time at 6-4, 4-2 when Harsh started hitting on the rise and playing a lot sharper to get back into the match.

In the eventual tiebreak, Bopanna's sizzling first serves bailed him out. What was clear was the fact that the Indian tennis needed a couple of more players of the calibre of Bopanna and Harsh to boost the overall standard.

The high quality foreign opposition is fine, but there is nothing like having a clutch of home players fighting with each other to improve everyone's standard.

Bopanna, who had missed the first Futures of the season in Lucknow, along with Sunil Kumar, Vinod Sridhar and Vishaal Uppal, as all of them were reporting for duty to their employers in an inter-Petroleum tournament, had notched up good wins over Vishaal Uppal, Peter Handoyo, and Pavel Lobanov before meeting Harsh and Vlasov.

``It has been a good week, and I hope to start doing well in the Challengers soon,'' said Bopanna who has the game to make it big at the next level.

To that extent, Bopanna made a thoughtful move in roping in Prahlad Srinath as his travelling coach. Bopanna had lost in two finals of similar tournaments while making waves in 2001. He had gone on to clinch two titles last year, and had also made it to the final of the 100,000-dollar Asian championship. With Srinath on his side to plan the strategies and keep him on his toes in training, there is no reason why Bopanna cannot move into the next league.

On the other hand, Harsh has been working hard for a few years now, combining College tennis in the U.S. with professional tennis on the circuit and the Davis Cup commitments. He also took Happy Bhalla, the Indian tennis guru in the U.S. to travel with him in Lucknow.

Tudor Enev, the champion in theLucknow leg.-- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

It is a very commendable effort on the part of the leading Indian players to have coaches travelling with them. Of course, it was a temporary arrangement for Harsh with Bhalla who otherwise has been assisting Vishaal Uppal. But the difference was pretty clear.

Harsh had given a very good account of himself till he let the match slip his grasp in the semifinals of Lucknow event, when he had three breakpoints on Enev's serve at 4-4 in the decider. Two bad returns let the Bulgarian escape, and Enev went on to clinch the title, beating a tired Satoshi Iwabuchi for the loss of four games in the final. Against Bopanna, in the Delhi championship, Harsh had a match point in the tenth game of the decider, but fritted away the chance.

Harsh scored a revenge victory over Enev, beating the seventh seed for the loss of six games in an inspired performance. He had beaten Tomislav Peric of Croatia who had earlier beaten the top-seeded Mikael Elgin of Russia, apart from Sergei Pozdnev of Russia in the earlier rounds, with a touch of assurance.

Being an intelligent student of the game, Harsh has been working diligently on his game, and making it complete in an all-round fashion. Thus, he sometimes plays from the baseline, but also shows his ability as a serve and volleyer at other times. He mixes his game well enough in meeting the demands of the situation to beat the challenge.

Satoshi Iwabuchi finished runner-up in Lucknow. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

Harsh also understands the need to play a few Challengers to avoid getting stuck at the Futures level. With the support of the AITA, and a lot of personal initiative, there is no reason why the likes of Harsh and Bopanna can come out on top.

Sunil Kumar was troubled by a painful shoulder and thus could not do justice to his entry. He went down to the eventual champion Vlasov in the quarterfinals, in which he had given himself a chance to serve out the first set. Sunil missed his chance and lost a closely fought tiebreak, before caving in, in the second set.

Sunil had scored clinical wins over the eighth-seeded Suwandi Suwandi and the National grasscourt champion Manoj Mahadevan, before falling to Vlasov. Having trained with Leander in Orlando, there was a refreshing touch of sharpness in Sunil's game.

The rest of the Indians are just about struggling to win two matches in a row. Yet, there is no doubt that they are all making faithful attempts with their limitations. They will all do well to learn that playing a match is different from how well one can serve and stroke. There is a lot in the mind, and the ability to play to potential is very much controlled by a strong mind, that does not get disturbed by quality opposition.

The fact that Rishi Sridhar knocked out the top-seeded Mikael Elgin in the first round of Lucknow, and the way Manoj Mahadevan played against the fourth-seeded Dong-Hyun Kim of Korea, there is a lot of room for optimism.

Peter Handoyo and Suwandi Suwandi with the doubles trophy, which they won in Lucknow. -- Pic. R. V. MOORTHY-

It was also interesting to see Parantap Chaturvedi provide a gutsy fare in becoming the only Indian to clinch a qualifier's spot in two tournaments put together, in draws of 64.

For most of us, who are perplexed to see the Indian players struggling to give a qualifier for the 400,000-dollar ATP Tour event in Chennai, after Sandeep Kirtane had clinched that rare honour in 1996 in Delhi, it was a reminder about the toughness of the field even at the 10,000-dollar level.

To be fair, the Indian players have been improving their standard to excel at this level, winning singles and doubles title quite consistently. If they stick to the task, we will soon find someone winning the Challengers, if not win Tour events like the way Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand and Hyung-Taik Lee of Korea have done in recently.

The key word is faith. The faith in hard training, systematic planning, and a heavy load of self-belief is need of the hour. Rohan Bopanna, Harsh Mankad and company should come out of the bad memories of defeats and cling on to the winning mantra.

The results: F2 Futures, New Delhi

Singles (final): Dmitri Vlasov (Rus) bt Rohan Bopanna 6-4, 6-1; Semifinals: Rohan Bopanna bt Harsh Mankad 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7-3); Dmitri Vlasov bt Vadim Davletshin (Rus) 1-6, 6-3, 6-3; Quarterfinals: Harsh Mankad bt Todor Enev (Bul) 6-4, 6-2; Rohan Bopanna bt Pavel Lobanov (Rus) 6-3, 6-3; Vadim Davletshin bt Naim Lalji (GBR) 6-2, 6-2; Dmitri Vlasov bt Sunil Kumar 7-6 (7-5), 6-3.

Doubles (final): Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal bt Ajay Ramaswamy and Harsh Mankad 6-3, 6-4; Semifinals: Ajay Ramaswamy and Harsh Mankad bt Mikael Elgin and Dmitri Vlasov (Rus) 1-6, 6-4, 6-4 Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal bt Dong-Hyun Kim (Kor) and Nitin Kirtane 6-0, 7-5; Quarterfinals: Mikael Elgin and Dmitri Vlasov bt Hendri-Susilo Promono and Febi Widhiyanto (Ina) 6-3, 3-6, 7-5; Ajay Ramaswami and Harsh Mankad bt Peter Handoyo and Suwandi Suwandi 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-4); Dong-Hyun Kim and Nitin Kirtane w.o. Todor Enev (Bul) and Rafael Moreno-Negrin (Esp); Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal bt Rohan Bopanna and Vijay Kannan 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.

F1 Futures, Lucknow

Singles (final): Todor Enev (Bul) bt Satoshi Iwabuchi (Jpn) 6-2, 6-2; Semifinals: Todor Enev bt Harsh Mankad 4-6, 6-2, 7-5; Satoshi Iwabuchi bt Orest Tereshchuk (Ukr) 7-6 (7-5), 6-0; Quarterfinals: Harsh Mankad bt Vitali Chvets (Blr) 6-1, 6-3; Todor Enev bt Dong-Hyun Kim (Kor) 6-2, 6-4; Satoshi Iwabuchi bt Tomislav Peric (Cro) 7-6 (7-2), 6-4; Orest Tereshchuk bt Naim Lalji (GBR) 6-3, 6-2.

Doubles (final): Peter Handoyo and Suwandi Suwandi (Ina) bt Satoshi Iwabuchi (Jpn) and Dong-Hyun Kim (Kor) 6-4, 6-3; Semifinals: Satoshi Iwabuchi and Dong-Hyun Kim w.o. Hendri Susilo Promono and Febi Widhiyanto (Ina); Peter Handoyo and Suwandi Suwandi bt Todor Enev (Bul) and Rafael Moreno-Negrin (Esp) 4-6, 6-3, 6-4; Quarterfinals: Hendri Susilo Promono and Febi Widhiyanto bt Mustafa Ghouse and Vijay Kannan 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (8-6); Satoshi Iwabuchi and Dong-Hyun Kim bt Harsh Mankad and Ajay Ramaswami 7-6 (7-2), 3-6, 7-6 (8-6); Todor Enev and Rafael Moreno-Negrin bt Mikael Elgin and Pavel Lobanov (Rus) 6-3, 6-2; Peter Handoyo and Suwandi Suwandi bt Vitaly Chvets (Blr) and Orest Tereshchuk (Ukr) 6-2, 6-3.