Three different champions emerge

WHEN the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association embarked on an ambitious venture of conducting three $25,000 ATP Challenger tournaments on the trot, that too in centres which had the minimum facilities for the event, there were many sceptics who doubted the Association's wisdom.

Khalyan N. Ashok

WHEN the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association embarked on an ambitious venture of conducting three $25,000 ATP Challenger tournaments on the trot, that too in centres which had the minimum facilities for the event, there were many sceptics who doubted the Association's wisdom. But in a record time, the KSLTA, with the help of the district administrations in Tumkur, Dharwad and Belgaum, managed to put 12 synthetic courts, four each in three of the centres, and upgraded the facilities in all three centres and successfully went through the tournaments, much to the gratification of the tennis administrators and to the delight of tennis greats like Vijay Amritraj and Leander Paes. Vijay, said "what KSLTA had done was near `miracle' and worthy of emulation by other State associations," while Leander Paes, who flew down on the final day of the Belgaum event, remarked "I won't be surprised if the next champion comes out of these new facilities in Karnataka''.

Playing with the right plan and focus the unseeded Yuri Schukin won the singles trophy in the Belgaum leg of the Challenger Series. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

Sunder Raju, the Secretary of the KSLTA, who took the gamble of organising the events in districts, hoped that "the venture would spread the game in the areas untouched by big tennis and pave way for more public interest in the game". Packed stands on the final days of the events in all three centres, were a testimony to that fact and tennis is surely and truly on its way up in Karnataka.

All the three legs had high cut off which ensured strong fields, and it also meant that barring few Indians like Prakash Amritraj, Rohan Bopanna and Harsh Mankad, the rest had to earn their berths either as wild cards or qualifiers.

The Indians did make an impact especially Prakash Amritraj, who won the doubles title along with his South African partner, Rik De Voest at Tumkur and he was a singles semi-finalist at Dharwad while, Vishal Uppal and Mustafa Ghouse were the doubles finalists at Belgaum.

It was a tough act for the top guns in the fray to maintain consistency right through the grinding three week schedule and naturally, the three legs had three different singles winners with the 19-year Phillipp Kohlschreiber claiming the title in Tumkur while the champions at Dharwad and Belgaum were Danai Udomchoke of Thailand and Yuri Schukin of Russia.

The first of the three Challengers which was at Tumkur had the toughest field, which included the 2001 ATP event champion, Michal Tabara and the World junior No. 1, Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus. But then courts, which were in place just 48 hours before the event, provided disconcerting bounce and took the toll of the seeds.

Phillipp Kohlschreiber, the 19-year-old German pro, took his maiden title away from home at Tumkur. The youngman from Munich, who plays hard, with strong first serve and big forehand, frustrated a steady Lee Childs of Great Britain in the final and won 7-5, 7-6 (7-5) in 101 minutes.

The triumph of 285 ranked Kohlschreiber was very much on cards given his consistent display right through the tournament, especially after his victory over Michal Tabara in the semi-finals. Kohlschreiber didn't give points easily and Lee Childs, ranked 415, learnt that the hard way in the final. The plucky Briton, on his way to the final had knocked out the top seed, Michal Mertinak and later, the fourth seed Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus. He was right up there, again playing solidly as ever, but what made the difference was Kohlschreiber's ability to pull a big shot when it mattered. He served big, blasting nine aces as against Childs' five. It was a matter of few points here and there and breaks came at the right moments for Kohlschreiber, who cemented his victory on them.

In the semi-finals, Michal Tabara's campaign came to a tragic end as he aggravated a ligament tear on his left wrist and was forced to play at half pace, before losing to Kohlschreiber. Tabara, with one arm under stress, was simply not able to go for his big shots, especially the double handed backhand returns and after taking the first set on a tie-breaker 7-6 (7-3). He simply went through the motions in the second set, which he lost 1-6 and in the decider, made a valiant bid to stay alive in the tie, but with a rival, who was showing no mercy attacking his vulnerable backhand, Tabara went down at 4-6.

Tabara, who was scheduled to play in all three events, however, pulled out of the tour on medical grounds and went home.

In the other semi-finals, Lee Childs, with his rock steady returns doused the fire of big serving Baghdatis. The 18-year-old Cypriot, went down 6-7 (8-10), 5-7.

The quarter-final round saw some fierce contests and the two surviving seeds, Michal Tabara and Marcos Baghdatis struggled to make the next stage. Tabara, was stretched by the baseline specialist, Dieter Kindlmann of Germany, before winning at 6-7 (3-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 while Baghdatis was made to sweat by Stephane Bohli of Switzerland and won at 6-3, 5-7, 6-0. Kohlschreiber and Lee Childs too had tough passages with the German, beating Lee Martin of Great Britain at 6-0,7-6 (7-5) while Childs rallied to beat Francesco Aldi of Italy at 6-7 (3-7), 7-5, 6-4.

It was the second round, that produced some stunning upsets in the event and as many as four seeds were knocked out and the casualities included the top seed, Michal Mertinak of Slovakia, third seed Rik De Voest, sixth seed Marcello Craca of Germany, and seventh seed Oliver Marachi of Austria.

There were six Indians in the main draw at Tumkur and only Harsh Mankad made it to the second round, before falling to Marcos Baghdatis in a well fought encounter at 4-6, 5-7. Baghdatis took the first set with a single break in the very first game of the first set, but Harsh, gave a fighting display in the second set. The small built Indian Davis Cupper, belting some solid returns and volleys, kept pace with his hard hitting rival, before he faltered with two mishits in the 11th game. Baghdatis, seized the break, and sealed the Indian's fate in the tie. Earlier in the opening round, Harsh defeated the Indian junior, Karan Rastogi 6-4, 6-1. But the other Indians made early exits.

It was a disappointing start for both Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amritraj, who lost in the opening round. Amritraj, who hardly settled down, after a long flight and without much practice, was beaten by Lee Martin of Great Britain 6-2, 6-3. Rohan Bopanna, played a tough tie against the eighth seed, Marcello Craca of Germany, which was decided on a tie-breaker shootout in the third set. Rohan lost at 4-6, 6-3, 6-7 (3-7). The contest, as Rohan rightly put it later, was anybody's game, but the atrocious condition of court No. 3 made all the difference. The bounce was uneven and it totally upset Rohan's rhythm.

Doubles winners, Branislav Sekac and Michal Mertinak posing with Leander Paes. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

Sunil Kumar Sipaeya, who received a wild card, went down to Oliver Marachi at 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 . Last season, Sunil Kumar made the headlines with his creditable performances in the Futures. But Challenger surely proved to be a different ball game. The Indian fought well and rallied from 0-2 down to level at 2 all in the decider, before Marachi pulled away. Another wild card, Somdev Varman went down to an Italian, Leonardo Azzaro at 4-6, 4-6.

Despite the disappointing fare in the singles, Prakash Amritraj, partnering Rik De Voest of South Africa, came up with a dazzling display in the doubles. The Indo-South African scratch combination, improved with each outing and their winning effort culminated with a deserving title triumph and they beat Slovakian duo, Michal Mertinak and Branislav Sekac 6-4, 6-3.

The spotlight of the second championship at Dharwad was on Prakash Amritraj till he went down in the semi-finals. The 19-year-old Davis Cup rookie, made the day for the local fans with some high voltage performance. Prakash was in great form with his strong serve and volley game and the Indian, easily one of the quick movers on the court, played with such passion, raising visions of a maiden Challenger title. But it, however ended in the semi-final where he went down to the second seed, Yeu Tzuoo Wang of Chinese Taipei.

Prakash won an interesting duel with Yuri Schukin at 6-3,7-6 (9-7), warding off a late surge by the Russian, who tied the set at 5-all, after trailing 4-5 in the second set with Prakash serving for the match. He broke Prakash to make it 5 all and as the set later spilled into a tie-breaker, Schukin led 6-2, before an inspired Prakash came back firing on all cylinders to win at 9-7.

Prakash, in round two, knocked out third seed, Michal Mertinak of Slovakia at 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5). The big serving Slovakian, got a taste of his own medicine, as Prakash hit back with strong first serve and solid ground strokes to stop him in a marathon three hour battle.

Prakash looked unstoppable as he crushed Zbynek Mlynarik of Austria in the quarter-finals at 6-3, 6-3. But then hit the road block, against the steady stroking second seed, Yeu Tzuoo Wang of Chinese Taipei in the semi-finals at 3-6, 1-6. Wang slowed the pace and returned consistently well to take the sting out of the Indian's serve. Prakash, who found himself on leash, rushed his strokes and made lot of unforced errors and quickly slid to defeat. "It was just not my game, everything seemed to come at half pace either I was hitting the ball early or I was doing it late'', said a dismayed Prakash.

The Dharwad event also saw improved performance by other Indians. Rohan Bopanna, knocked out the sixth seed, Vadim Kutsenko of Uzbekistan in the opening round at 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (11-9) and blasted as many as 16 aces on his way to victory. Rohan, later with a sore arm, had problems with his serve, and came apart in the second round, where he went down to Terrachi of Japan at 6-7 (5-7), 0-6.

Vishal Uppal, was another great performer in the first round, as he beat Tumkur finalist, Lee Childs in a well contested three setter, which was briefly held up by rain. Vishal kept his focus and emerged as a worthy winner at 7-6 (7-5), 5-7, 7-6 (7-1). He, however, went down in the second round to the seventh seed Guillermo Garcia Lopez at 3-6, 6-7 (5-7). Mustafa Ghouse, who got a wild card, crashed to a 1-6, 2-6 defeat against Rik De Voest while Harsh Mankad once again, made a quick exit, losing to Mertinak in the opening round at 6-7 (8-10), 4-6. The qualifier, Vinod Sridhar did well to make the main draw after gruelling qualifying rounds, but his challenge was snuffed out by Mlynarik at 6-2, 6-2.

While the focus was mainly on the Indian display, especially that of Prakash, the top seed, Danai Udomchoke, ranked 184, crept his way up to the finals, often with some dicey performances. But by the time, he was in the semi-finals, Udomchoke was very much in control. He stopped the Tumkur champion, Phillipp Kohlschreiber in his tracks 6-4, 6-4 and in the semi-finals, he outlasted Rik de Voest in a three setter 3-6, 6-2, 7-5.

Thailand's Danai Udomchoke justified his top billing by claiming the singles final at Dharwad. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

In the final, Udomchoke beat Wang 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 in 75 minutes for his maiden Challenger title. Both played tentatively at the outset and made lot of unforced errors. After an absorbing first set which saw both trade breaks often, Udomchoke tightened his game in the tie-breaker and took the first set. The tie, then became a lopsided affair, as Wang, who had bouts of nausea, simply went through the motions in the second set.

The doubles final, however, provided an interesting fare and the unseeded Ratiwatana siblings from Thailand, staged a great rally to beat Prakash Amritraj and De Voest, who were gunning for their second straight title. The Thai pair, down 2-5 in the decider, saved four match points and turned the tie in its favour.

Prakash Amritraj's dazzling display and some encouraging performances from other Indians at Dharwad, did raise the Indian expectations at Belgaum.

Prakash's effort in the singles, however, ended on a tragic note. Prakash, was rather unlucky, as he battled cramps, dehydration, a merciless sun and a determined opponent, as he went down to Chinese Taipei qualifier, Ti Chen at 6-3, 3-6, 5-7. Prakash certainly had a good draw and was expected to make the last eight, but fate had a different ending for him.

He was writhing in pain, with the forehand cramps on his playing arm by the end of the first set. In fact, he pushed himself flat going for his big strokes to take the first set at 6-3 and took a 2-0 lead in the second set. Prakash was a man in a hurry, as he stepped up the pace and rushed the strokes, which saw Chen bounce back with vigour. He cracked Prakash in the sixth and eighth games to take the second at 6-3 and levelled the match score at one set all. In the decider, Prakash had a chance to go up 4-2, but a dubious call on Chen's forehand, inches outside the line, spoilt his chances. Prakash though in pain, gave the match one last shot in the 10th game, when he led 5-4 and forced Chen to seven deuces on the latter's serve and even held a match point, but hit a forehand long to drop his chance. Chen rallied to hold the serve for 5-5 and broke Prakash in the 11th game and took the set and match on his serve 7-5.

"It was very disappointing to go this way, but I was in such a pain at the end of the match, I couldn't shake hands with Chen and the only reason I continued in the third set, was because of the crowd. I didn't want to concede and disappoint them'', said Prakash after the tie. But he can take consolation from the fact that he put up the best performance among Indians in the fray and it was certainly not the end of the road and Prakash is bound to make waves at the Challenger level.

Rohan Bopanna, putting aside the dismal show at Dharwad, thrashed Somdev Varman 6-2, 6-0 in the opening round, but had the mortification of losing to the temperamental Russian, Teimuraz Gabashvilli at 7-6 (10-8), 3-6, 6-7 (4-7). Rohan was truly on top in the first set as he served and volleyed with fire to keep the hard hitting Russian at bay.

Unseeded Sanchai and Sonchat Ratiwatana staged a good rally to take the doubles event in Dharwad. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

The second set went Gabashvilli's way at 6-3, with Rohan conceding some easy points to the Russian, who indulged in lot of unsavoury theatrics. In fact, the Indian Davis Cupper, with a break in the fourth game led 3-1 before Gabashvilli sought a medical time out. He took to the court at his own pace, despite code violation warning from the chair umpire and his delaying tactics upset the rhythm of Rohan. The decider went with serves, and ended in a tie-breaker shootout in which Rohan went down 4-7.

Harsh Mankad also made his exit in the second round as a steady slugging Stephanne Bohli, who played his backhand topspin very effectively, stopped him at 6-4, 6-3. The wild cards, Mustafa Ghouse, Sunil Kumar Sipaeyea, Saurabh Singh went out in the first round along with the qualifier, Vijay Kannan.

In fact the singles field was left wide open by the second round, as the top seed, Udomchoke, after losing the first at 5-7, conceded to Yuri Schukin of Russia and Bohli slamming the third seed, Mertinak in the first round at 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 and the second seed, Yeu Tzuoo Wang too conceded to Gabashvilli in the second round, as he suffered from an upset stomach. The only seed left after the quarter-finals was Rik De Voest.

The 20-year-old South African, ranked No. 3 back home was a compact player, who made up for his big strokes with speed and quick reflexes and was a good volleyer. But nothing went right for De Voest in the semi-finals against Yuri Schukin. The unseeded Russian, who had a 2-0 career win against him, stretched it to 3-0 and won 6-0, 6-3. Schukin's strengths were his big serves and ground strokes and he just stayed back and kept the South African on the run with some great angles and variations. The other semi-final was a clash of two strong baseliners, Bransilav Sekac of Slovakia and Dieter Kindlmann of Germany. Kindlmann, a quarter-finalist at Tumkur, made it past that hurdle with a 7-6 (7-2), 6-2 victory.

Thus the Challenger Series for the second time (after Tumkur) featured two unseeded players on the summit — Yuri Schukin and Dieter Kindlmann. Schukin, who had won only once in his six Challenger finals, was determined not to end up as a runner-up again and he played with the right plan and focus.

The final lasted exactly 64 minutes and Schukin went for quick points, cut short the rallies and found rhythm with his strong ground strokes. His approach frustrated Kindlmann, who loves to rally from the baseline. In the first set the two traded breaks early, before Schukin shut it with a decisive one in the eighth game and held serve to win the set 6-3.

Phillipp Kohlschreiber with his strong serve and big forehand frustrated Lee Childs for the singles title in Tumkur. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

Schukin then stepped up the pace and cracked Kindlmann twice in the second set, fifth and seventh, which virtually ended Kindlmann's challenge.

The consistent Slovkaian duo, Michal Mertinak and Bransilav Sekac, after reaching the final at Tumkur and semi-finals at Dharwad, finally claimed the doubles title, beating the Indian pair, Vishal Uppal and Mustafa Ghouse 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-2).

The Indian lads came up with an inspired display, especially Vishal Uppal, who was outstanding at the net. It was sheer fire power of Mertinak's big serve and some great counters from Sekac, which ended their spirited challenge.

AITA needs to look at the manner in which wild cards are being given. At Dharwad, it gave the wild card to a Dutch pair at the expense of the Indians and similarly at Belgaum, one of the singles wild card went to Saurabh Singh, who is nowhere in the ranking, instead of a deserving youngster.

Prakash Amritraj and Rik De Voest improved with each outing to emerge champions in the doubles. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

Facilities for the players, media and spectators remained the sore points at Tumkur and Dharwad, but Belgaum proved a pleasant surprise as the tournament director, Shashikanth Kanbargimath and Deputy Commissioner of Belgaum, B. S. Palaksha went out of their way to make the event a memorable one. "We certainly learn from experience, I can promise that we will come with bigger and better shows soon'', promised C.S. Sunder Raju, secretary of the KSLTA.

The results: Tumkur Challenger (Sep. 29 to Oct.5):

Singles final : Phillipp Kohlschreiber (Ger) bt Lee Childs (GB) 7-5, 7-6 (7-5). Semi-finals : Philip Kohlschreiber bt Michal Tabara (Cze) 6-7 (3-7), 6-1, 6-4; Lee Childs bt Marcos Baghdatis (Cyp) 7-6 (8-6), 7-5.

Doubles final: 4-Prakash Amritraj (Ind)/Rik De Voest (RSA) bt Michal Mertinak/Branislav Sekac ( Svk) 6-4, 6-3. Semi-finals: Mertinak/Sekac bt Marcello Craca /Oliver Marach (Ger) 6-1, 7-6 (7-4); Amritraj/De Voest w/o 2-Tabara/Fukarek.

Dharwad Challenger (Oct. 6 to 12):

Singles final: Danai Udomchoke (Tha) bt Yeu Tzuoo Wang (Tpe) 7-6 (7-5), 6-1. Semi-finals: Danai Udomchoke bt Rik De Voest 3-6, 6-2, 7-5; Yeu Tzuoo Wang bt Prakash Amritraj 6-3, 6-1.

Doubles final: Sanchai/Sonchat Ratiwatana (Tha) bt 1-Prakash Amritraj (Ind)/Rik De Voest (RSA) 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. Semi-finals: Prakash Amritraj/Rik De Voest bt Toshide Matsui (Jpn)/Udomchoke 6-3, 6-2; Sanchai/Sonchat Ratiwatana bt Michal Mertinak/Bransilav Sekac 7-6 (7-4), 7-5.

Belgaum Challenger (Oct. 13 to 19):

Singles final: Yuri Schukin (Rus) bt Dieter Kindlmann (Ger) 6-3, 6-2. Semi-finals: Yuri Schukin bt Rik De Voest 6-3, 6-0; Dieter Kindlmann bt Branislav Sekac 7-6 (7-2), 6-2.

Doubles final: Michal Mertinak/Branislav Sekac bt Vishal Uppal and Mustafa Ghouse (Ind) 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-2). Semi-finals: Mertinak/Sekac bt James Auckland/L ee Childs (GB) 3-6, 6-4, 6-3; Vishal Uppal/Mustafa Ghouse bt Punna Vishal/Sunil Kumar Sipaeya (Ind) 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.