Vinod Sridhar peaks at the right time

THINGS turned around all of a sudden for the modest Vinod Sridhar, who hogged the limelight in the International Tennis Federation's Futures tour at its first camp in Kolkata.

AMITABHA DAS SHARMA

Vinod Sridhar with the men's singles trophy.-S. PATRONOBISH

THINGS turned around all of a sudden for the modest Vinod Sridhar, who hogged the limelight in the International Tennis Federation's Futures tour at its first camp in Kolkata. The gutsy southpaw sprung a surprise winning the title at the expense of the American, Adam Fass. The triumph looked fitting as Sridhar's feat obliged his employer (ONGC), which was also the sponsor of the $10,000 event.

The line-up for the tournament presented a strong field with almost all the big names from the hierarchy of the senior men's tennis in the country turning up for the precious ATP points, that the event proffered. There were a handful of foreign entrants and among them three Americans — Chris Kwon, Nick Monroe and Fass — figured prominently. Fass was unseeded while Pakistan's Davis Cupper Aqeel Khan was the highest ranked outsider and took the second seeding behind Sunil Kumar Sipaeya.

The Indian, ranked second in the country, headed the call with an international ranking of 351, while others like Vijay Kannan, Vishal Uppal, Sridhar and Ajay Ramaswami filled up the slots behind him. There was another title aspirant in the talented Karan Rastogi, who had a point to prove after being given the pride of place as a reserve in the country's Davis Cup team. The only two big absentees were the country's top ranked Harsh Mankad and Prakash Amritraj, who took a break after the Davis Cup fixture against China. Sipaeya, who reached the final in Delhi in the first round of Futures in January, had the best performance in the fresh season while Rastogi, a semi-finalist in the first event in Mumbai, was another name who showed promise.

Ajay Ramaswami (left) and Vishal Uppal, who emerged as the doubles champions.-S. PATRONOBISH

The main draw went haywire as unseeded entrants put the fancied names by the wayside. While only Sridhar, who was unobtrusive all through, working his way quietly in a workmanlike manner, survived to reveal himself during the title fight, the other big names in the draw were feeling the heat right from the start. The casualty count in the first round was two as Aqeel Khan was forced to an early exit by qualifier Wang Cheng Hsieh of Chinese Taipei. The 25-year-old Khan got exposed as he failed to get past Hsieh, almost thousand ranks junior to him. The Pakistani, who had earlier won a similar tournament in Hyderabad in September last year, was in crisis right from the start against a more fit opponent, who had a good court coverage reaching the ball early for effective returns. Khan's brief moment of dominance was in the second set which he won in the tie-breaks before Hsieh completed a 6-4, 6-7(10-12), 6-2 upset. Things appeared jinxed for the Pakistani as he walked out of the court to a bigger dejection finding his purse, (with money and credit cards), pinched from his kit bag. The Chinese Taipei player continued with his good show as he downed another senior ranked player, Matthew Hanlin of Great Britain before Kwon stopped him in the quarter-finals. In another first round match 16-year-old local prospect, Rupesh Roy, who received a wild-card, stopped Kamala Kannan, (more than six hundred ranks higher) in a three setter. Roy too was consumed by Kwon in the pre-quarters.

The second round (pre-quarter-finals) belonged to Adam Fass. The American packed off tournament favourite Sipaeya in straight sets, but the contest set a dark tone as the former got involved in a verbal duel with some other Indian players. Fass, who drew penalties for his offensive temperament starting with a court violation for verbal abuse in first round against Ashutosh Singh, again incurred the displeasure of the umpire getting a time fault for purposeful delay in the match against Sipaeya. The top seed looked clearly upset by the bad humour of his opponent and failed to strike the rhythm that forced his ouster. Fass combined strong serving abilities with an aggressive baseline game and had the sharpest forehand return in the event but incurred the wrath of many players and officials for his caustic temper. The upsets continued with the eighth seeded Ramaswami, who was shown the door by a qualifier, Peter Mayer Tischer of Germany while Karan Rastogi produced fine form to down fourth seed Vishal Uppal in straight sets. The match was significant as Rastogi with his win over Uppal, a former Davis Cupper, set to impress his ascension to the national team.

The quarter-finals continued to prune the seeds as third seeded Vijay Kannan and sixth seeded Nick Monroe were shown the door to have two Indians — Rastogi and Sridhar — and two Americans — Fass and Kwon — progressing to the last four stage which resembled a Davis Cup draw. Rastogi, fresh from a stint with the famed Nick Bollittieri Tennis Academy, drew points on both his strength and technique as he more than matched the athletic Monroe on power. Rastogi was on the job right from the start and produced an all-round show to beat Monroe 6-3, 7-6(8-6). On the other hand Fass, curbing his bad temper, played well to get rid of the qualifier Mayer Tischer. Sridhar too produced a powerful and accurate game to beat Vijay Kannan straight in just 56 minutes. The semi-finals saw two contrasting contests. The one between Rastogi and Fass was more absorbing as the match highlighted class and character with both the players exhibiting good technique and power. The American, however, had the last laugh as Rastogi was inconsistent and lost out. The other match unfolded a different story as Sridhar proved a handful for the other American, Kwon. The Indian excelled on his rasping forehand returns that helped him win the first set 6-3 before Kwon retired in the second set, trailing 1-4, complaining of illness. The final saw the best of Sridhar who peaked at the right moment with a spectacular display of tact and technique to offset the challenge of unseeded Fass. The 20-year-old American, with a giant killer image, seemed to hold an edge over Sridhar before the match, but the Indian proved all predictions wrong by effectively capitalising on Fass' weakness with his strong service and powerful baseline game. This was his second ITF Futures title.

The doubles final saw the seasoned combination of top seeded Vishal Uppal and Ajay Ramaswami come up trumps over the youthful Karan Rastogi and Ashutosh Singh. Uppal, who figured in the winners' list partnering Mustafa Ghouse in four out of the last six Futures held in the country, proved his mettle with a new companion, Ramaswami, to extend his reign as the top doubles player in the circuit.

The results

Men's singles: Final: Vinod Sridhar (Ind) bt Adam Fass (USA) 6-3, 6-3. Semi-finals: A. Fass bt Karan Rastogi (Ind) 7-6(8-6), 6-0; V. Sridhar bt Chris Kwon (USA) 6-3, 4-1 (retd.).

Doubles: Final: Vishal Uppal & Ajay Ramaswami (Ind) bt Karan Rastogi & Ashutosh Singh (Ind) 6-2, 6-3. Semi-finals: A. Ramaswami & V. Uppal bt Wang Cheng Hsieh & Kai Lung Chang (Tpe) 6-3, 6-7(4-7), 6-3; K. Rastogi & A. Singh bt Sunil Kumar Sipaeya & Peter Mayer Tischer (Ger) 6-4, 7-6(7-5).