Vijay Kannan comes good

THERE was never any doubt about his potential. The wiry lad from Chennai has always been one of the fittest tennis players in the Indian circuit, who could serve and stroke with authority.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

THERE was never any doubt about his potential. The wiry lad from Chennai has always been one of the fittest tennis players in the Indian circuit, who could serve and stroke with authority. If ever there was any complaint about his approach to the game, right from the early days when he was a talented junior, it was that his body language had never been brisk, emanating positive energy.

Vijay Kannan... maiden triumph in the Futures. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

Over the years, Vijay Kannan has imbibed knowledge with sincerity, had faced the ups and downs with equanimity and more important than anything else, stuck to the task with religious fervour. It was thus heartening to see the 24-year-old ONGC employee come good at last in the professional circuit, as he won the singles title in the $10,000 ITF men's Futures tennis tournament in Delhi.

"I thank my parents for the tremendous support, and the faith they had kept in my game over the years," was the first reaction from Vijay, after he had dispatched State-mate and fellow employee Vinod Sridhar in straight sets in the final.

The Afro-Asian Games champion had struggled in the last few years to push his ATP ranking up and had always hovered in the 700 region.

Limited exposure

The former BAT trainee had grown up to be No. 73 in the world among the juniors, despite the limited exposure he had on the international circuit, and had stretched Anthony Dupuis of France to three sets in a Challenger as far back as in 1998, when he was in his last year as a junior. He had played numerous quality matches, but over the years Vijay tended to believe more in the touch play that was good enough to win him matches in India but would not be helpful when he met quality players anywhere in the world.

Thus, it was quite refreshing to find Vijay shrug off his safety-oriented approach and mix it up nicely, playing according to the demands of the situation and with a lot of intelligence and imagination on way to his maiden Futures title.

Vijay had lost to Sunil Kumar in the final at the same venue two years ago, but he proved too good for Vinod this time despite an indifferent start to the final. It was clear that Vijay had overcome a mental barrier as he had lost to Vinod the last three times, and twice this season itself.

"I am perhaps playing the best tennis of my career. I wish I could play more tournaments now to capitalise on the good form. It has been tough in the last few months, as I had not been able to make many points in the Indian and Pakistani Satellite circuits. But those matches helped me to get into my best form. I am very happy to get 18 ATP points," said Vijay, who had managed to eke out only four ATP points from four weeks of toil in the Pakistani Satellite circuit.

The circuit at home earlier had given Vijay only seven ATP points for another four weeks of hard work in the heat and dust of Northern India.

Impressive

He had beaten Vinod five times in the international circuit and thus it was no surprise that Vijay was able to master the crafty left-hander who had won his maiden title at this level two years ago. However, what was impressive was the manner in which Vijay handled the challenge from quality players such as Aqeel Khan of Pakistan and the big-game player Chris Kwon of the U.S. in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively.

Vijay gave only seven games to Kwon, who was fresh from winning a title in Sri Lanka a fortnight earlier and had also made the semifinals of the tournament the previous week in Hyderabad, apart from showing the door to the top-seeded Norikazu Sugiyama of Japan in Delhi. The manner in which Vijay warded off the challenge from Aqeel Khan, who had beaten him the previous three weeks on the trot, and four times in all, showed that the young man was at last ready to realise his potential.

Stiff challenge

Vijay had to face a stiff challenge from Kamala Kannan and pulled it off in the third set, blanking the other Kannan in the climax with a quality display. Even the first round was quite tough, as Vijay met the sixth-seeded Mustafa Ghouse, but he played his game with intense concentration to make it a memorable run for himself.

If he uses the platform to good effect and maintains the level of his game and pushes his standard up in due course of time, Vijay can really get after the top players of the country such as Harsh Mankad and Prakash Amritraj who enjoy a relatively high ATP ranking.

Vishaal Uppal (right) and Mustafa Ghouse won the doubles title. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

Vinod Sridhar lacked the confidence in his game and the indifferent serve only added to his woes. Yet, it was a commendable fare from him that he beat a string of quality players including the second-seeded Sunil Kumar, apart from the serve and volley specialist Vishaal Uppal.

Sunil showed good fighting qualities all along but was unable to pull it off despite playing well against Vinod Sridhar. He turned the set around after facing two setpoints in the eighth game of the first set, to eventually win it in the tie-break, but was unable to dictate terms thereafter, as Vinod clawed his way back with his usual determination.

Sanam Singh was the other Indian player who played with composure in making the quarterfinals for the second successive week, and lost to the same player, Chris Kwon. The 16-year-old Chandigarh lad was playing only in his fourth professional tournament and only the second main draw. Thanks to former Indian cricket captain Kapil Dev's intervention, Sanam has got an opportunity to train at the Nick Bollettieri's centre in Florida for a fortnight and if he impresses the tennis gurus, he will have more stints in future to hone his skills.

National champion Punna Vishal played his serve and volley game with great effect against Aqeel Khan in the second round, but a leg injury hampered his progress. Aqeel had done well to reap 77 ATP points from nine weeks in the sub-continent, when he won everything in sight, and it was perhaps the sheer weariness of having played so many weeks together when he was earlier used to playing only the odd Davis Cup matches, had a say in his quarterfinal loss to his doubles partner Vijay Kannan.

While it was good to find another Indian triumph in a field that had players from Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, U.S., Pakistan, Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka and Switzerland, the Indian domination in doubles continued as the top-seeded Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal took the honours without dropping a set. Of course, the Asian Games bronze medallists were stretched to two tie-breaks in the semifinals by the fast improving Ashutosh Singh and Gurmehar Singh, but Mustafa and Vishaal were a class act.

It is time that the two started planning to compete more at the Challenger level so that they make a mark in doubles though it is a good sign that they still have the urge to excel in singles.

It is time we had another pair that can draw the world's attention the way Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have done over the years.

The results:

Singles (final): Vijay Kannan bt Vinod Sridhar 7-5, 6-3.

Semifinals: Vijay Kannan bt Chris Kwon (U.S.) 6-4, 6-3; Vinod Sridhar bt Sunil Kumar 6-7 (1-7), 6-4, 6-2.

Quarterfinals: Chris Kwon bt Sanam Singh 6-4, 6-1; Vijay Kannan bt Aqeel Khan (Pak) 6-1, 7-6 (7-5); Vinod Sridhar bt Vishaal Uppal 7-5, 6-3; Sunil Kumar bt Jaco Mathew 6-1, 7-6 (7-4).

Doubles (final): Vishaal Uppal and Mustafa Ghouse bt Kai-Lung Chang and Wang-Cheng Hsieh (Tpe) 7-6 (7-3), 6-3.

Semifinals: Mustafa Ghouse and Vishaal Uppal bt Ashutosh Singh and Gurmehar Singh 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-2); Kai-Lung Chang and Wang-Cheng Hsieh (Tpe) bt Yew Ming Si (Mas) and Takeshi Itoh (Jpn) 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3).