At six-all in the final set tiebreak of the women’s singles title decider at the Tamil Nadu State Championship on Saturday, the match was shifted to an adjacent court due to poor light.
This was the last-minute twist in an already topsy-turvy battle between top seed Sai Samhitha and unseeded teenager Lakshmi Prabha that started more than three hours ago on Court No.3 of the SDAT Stadium in Chennai.
Sai and Lakshmi had reached the summit clash with straight-sets wins in all rounds. However, 27-year-old Sai started as the favourite against her 16-year-old opponent.
The final began under overcast conditions at 3.20pm. Sai struggled with her first serves and went down 1-4 in no time. The sixth game of the opening set featured a long deuce game but eventually, Lakshmi managed to hold serve despite three double faults to lead 5-1.
From here on, there was a sudden momentum shift. Sai, with her flat one-handed backhands and slices, won 16 of the next 21 points, breaking her younger opponent’s serve twice, to level at 5-5.
Lakshmi got her advantage back by breaking Sai’s serve in the next game, but failed to serve out the set in the following game. The first set in the women’s final entered a tiebreaker, with the weather having gone from overcast to mildly sunny, then a slight drizzle, and back to overcast again.
Meanwhile, the men’s singles final on Court No. 4, despite having started half-an-hour after than the women’s final, was close to being done as eventual champion Dhakshineswar Suresh led 6-0, 3-0 against Guhan Rajan. The wheelchair men’s singles final had ended after beginning at the same time as the women’s summit clash.
In the first set tiebreak, Sai, having come back from 1-3 and 2-5 down, hit one slice too many at 5-6. The ball landed wide and Lakshmi won the set that lasted an hour and 15 minutes.
The teenager held serve in the first game of the second set but seemed to run out of steam. Sai seized control and sealed the second set 6-1 in 45 minutes. The top seed raced to 3-0 lead in the deciding third set. At this point, it felt as if the opening set had never happened.
As the light started to fade, Lakshmi, who seemingly looked down and out, began to shine again.
“At that point (0-3 down in the third), I just wanted to stay in each and every point I played. I just kept motivating myself,” the Class 12 student at Campion Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School in Trichy, said later.
Her retrieving skills and superior mobility on court helped her bounce back to first reduce the deficit to 2-3 before opening up a 5-4 lead. Each and every point won was followed by a “Come on!” to pump herself up.
However, twice serving for the championship at 5-4 and 6-5, Lakshmi played poor service games, making two double faults. This allowed Sai to punish her gentle second serves.
The final set went to tiebreak. Unlike the first set, it was Sai who made the first move as she took a 3-0 lead. A frustrated Lakshmi, perhaps listening to her mother from the sidelines to take it "point by point," twice came from behind to level the scores at three-all and five-all. Sai wasted a championship point at 6-5, overhitting the cross court forehand, and then, it happened.
The lights faded and the organisers shifted the match to Court No. 5, where the floodlights were already switched on.
The tiebreaker resumed at six-all and Lakshmi got yet another opportunity to serve for the title at 7-6. This time, she did not let go as a 16-shot rally finished with Sai going for an Ons Jabeur-like drop shot from the baseline, only to see the ball hitting the net and ending a three-hour-25-minutes epic, one of the longest women's singles matches on Indian soil. According to Indian tennis insiders, a women's singles match in Delhi in 2014 went on for 4 hours and 32 minutes.
Lakshmi, who will next be in action at the junior nationals in Chennai in August, doesn't have role models in tennis as such but "likes Rafael Nadal’s hardwork, Novak Djokovic’s consistency and Roger Federer’s skills."