Where grass still grows!

The champions, Natasha Palha and Vishnu Vardhan.-PICS. SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

A man on a successful comeback trail and a woman first-timer at winning the title hold Amitabha Das Sharma’s attention.

For one it was about revisiting the summit of success, while the other savoured the first taste of glory. The hallowed South Club in Kolkata stood witness as Vishnu Vardhan reclaimed the men’s title and Natasha Palha emerged as the new women’s champion in the latest edition of the country’s oldest national tournament.

Grasscourt tennis is rapidly disappearing in the country and the quaint 93-year-old club in Kolkata stands like an oasis gratifying the parched memory of the country’s lawn-tennis aficionados. Even though the club has embraced hard and clay surfaces, it has also been able to preserve its grass courts to keep the heritage alive. And with its members and the Bengal Tennis Association still managing to get funds for the less-favoured event, the National grass-court championship continues to endure the ravages of time.

Vishnu Vardhan relived the charm of serve-and-volley like a connoisseur as he stormed past his opponents, who definitely were less acquainted with the art of playing on grass, to be the justified champion. He had won the crown at the same venue in his maiden appearance in 2007. “I played two finals here and won the title on both the occasions. And this time I won the tournament without dropping my serve even once. That is very satisfying,” said Vishnu Vardhan after his win. In 2007, when he had won as a 20-year-old, he had been representing Andhra Pradesh. Now he turns out for Tamil Nadu. “I have shifted to Chennai from Hyderabad after joining my employer ONGC, which has been the big reason why I am able to continue with tennis at this level,” said Vishnu acknowledging the support of his sponsor.

The title also marked a successful return from injury for Vishnu, who spent a big part of 2013 affected by tendinitis in his right knee. From the high in 2012 when he made his Olympic and Davis Cup debuts, Vishnu saw most of his plans go awry the next season with the nagging injury affecting his game. A concerted effort at rehabilitation, which meant extra hours in the gymnasium, saw Vishnu making a successful return with the grass-court title. “This year is important as there are quite a few ATP challengers and ITF futures events in the country. I would surely like to pick up as many points and get my ranking back within 300,” hoped Vishnu, who had a career high of 262.

J. Mohit Mayur, the men's runner-up.-

Vishnu credited much of his successful comeback to the backing he received from his life-partner Sonia Dayal. “We got married in December (2013) and hardly got any time to go out together as I have been putting extra hours on tennis. She (Sonia) was a player herself and was very supportive during the rehab,” he said.

“This win at the beginning of the season is quite reassuring and I hope to retain the good form in the season,” said Vishnu after seeing off the challenge of young J. Mohit Mayur in the final. “I am moving and returning well on court. I am also felt confident with my serving,” Vishnu’s confidence stemmed from the 18 aces that he served in the final. This high level of serving efficiency definitely unnerved his opponent, who struggled to find his footing in a rather one-sided final.

Natasha Palha came like a whiff of fresh air in the women’s singles, which has lately been the preserve of old-timers like the six-time champion Rushmi Chakravarthy of Tamil Nadu. Natasha, who lost in the final against Ankita Raina last year, made no mistake while taking on Rushmi in the title round this time.

The girl from Goa, who has just turned 20, showed great temperament and application against the experience and tactical acumen of her 36-year-old opponent. Natasha virtually decimated the Grand Old Lady of Indian tennis in just 62 minutes using her strong forehand returns to great effect.

The evergreen Rushmi Chakravarthy.-

Natasha, who got into the tournament as the second-seed, readied for her maiden crown beating the fifth-seeded Bhuvana Kalva of Andhra Pradesh in a marathon semifinal that lasted almost three hours.

“This is a very special day for me. Since losing the final here to Ankita last year, I have been waiting for this opportunity. I am glad that I could produce the right game to win my first National crown,” said Natasha, who is one of the several sportspersons sponsored by the Dempo Group. Natasha, who grew up playing on a cement court at her ancestral home in Panjim, now looks to work harder to realise the dream of becoming the No. 1 women’s player in the country.

THE RESULTS

Men’s singles (final): Vishnu Vardhan (TN) bt J. Mohit Mayur (TN) 6-4, 7-6(4); Semifinals: Vishnu Vardhan bt Ashwin Vijayragavan (AP) 6-3, 6-2, J. Mohit Mayur bt Chandril Sood (UP) 6-4, 3-0 (15-0, retd).

Doubles (final): Ronak Manuja (Mah) & Ashwin Vijayraghavan (AP) bt Vijay Sundar Prashanth & Mohammad Fariz (TN) 7-6(2), 6-4.

Women’s singles (final): Natasha Palha (Goa) bt Rushmi Chakravarthy (TN) 6-1, 6-1; Semifinals: Rushmi Chakravarthy bt Sri Vaishnavi Peddi Reddy (AP) 6-4, 4-6, 6-3; Natasha Palha bt Bhuvana Kalva (AP) 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.

Doubles (Final): Rushmi Chakravarthi (TN) & Bhuvana Kalva (AP) bt Natasha Palha (Goa) & Nidhi Chilumula (AP) 6-2, 7-6(4).