SPORTS TRIBUNE
 


Indian wonder Down Under
M. S. Unnikrishnan

Indian tennis is on a roll. Suddenly, Indians are winning Grand Slam titles, and creating upset wins in ATP events. When the glorious era of the Krishnans and the Amritrajs ended, it was feared that there would be a vacuum at the top. Then Leander Paes charged in like a bull in a China shop and Mahesh Bhupathi also surfaced to forge a successful partnership with him to take tennis to a different level. Now that Leander and Mahesh are on the last leg of their playing career, there yet again looked like a void, which was difficult to fill.

Yuki Bhambri, who won the junior Australian Open title recently, has proved that he has the potential to make it big. Photo: AFP

The Rafa edge
Julian Linden
The good news for Roger Federer is that he may still achieve his life’s dream of winning more grand slam titles than any other man. Federer only needs one more major to match Pete Sampras’ record of 14 and at the age of 27, time is still on his side.But the bad news for the Swiss master is that even if does get the record, he may not hold it long. His greatest challenger now is not the man in front, but the one coming from behind.

Rafal Nadal (L) captured his sixth Grand Slam title when he beat Roger Federer in an epic five-set thriller at the Australian Open Photo: AFP


High-flying Kiwi
Sandeep Rana

After spending eight years as understudy to first choice Paul Woolford, former New Zealand goalkeeper, it was at the Punjab Gold Cup hockey that Kyle Marshall Pontifex played as a number the one goalkeeper for the Black Sticks, on a regular basis. The match they played against Germany in the first round of the tournament holds special memory for Kyle as he was adjudged the man of the match. “Yes, I was happy. But it would have been beter if we could have wont he game. Germany scored two late goals and drew level. I wish I could have a kept a clean sheet?”: says the 28-year-old Pontifex.


Goal keeper of New Zealand’s team Kyle Marshall Pontifex, who was in Chandigarh recently to participate in the Punjab Gold Cup hockey tournament. Tribune photo: S Chandan

   

 

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Indian wonder Down Under
M. S. Unnikrishnan


Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza won the Australian Open mixed doubles title to become the first all-Indian pair to win a Grand Slam title. Photo: AFP

Indian tennis is on a roll. Suddenly, Indians are winning Grand Slam titles, and creating upset wins in ATP events. When the glorious era of the Krishnans and the Amritrajs ended, it was feared that there would be a vacuum at the top.

Then Leander Paes charged in like a bull in a China shop and Mahesh Bhupathi also surfaced to forge a successful partnership with him to take tennis to a different level. Now that Leander and Mahesh are on the last leg of their playing career, there yet again looked like a void, which was difficult to fill.

The Rohan Bopannas and Prakash Amritrajs were not living upto their initial promise to shoulder big responsibility on their own steam, and there were not too many promising young ones on the assembly line.

Somdev Devvarman catapulted himself into the big league with a runner-up finish in the Chennai Open ATP event last month. Though he had won his second collegiate title in the US a few months ago, his total makeover as a player in the Chennai Open came as a surprise.

The Australian Open Grand Slam mixed doubles title won by Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza and Yuki Bhambri’s boys singles crown have put tennis back on the high road.

Though this was Mahesh’s 11th Grand Slam title, and seventh in mixed doubles, it was for the first time that an all-Indian pair had triumphed in a Grand Slam mixed doubles event.

Mahesh’s previous titles were with different partners while for Sania Mirza, it was a dream come true. She had shown much promise when she made a stunning debut in the Australian Open singles in 2007, but somehow, she could never really bring out her best to emerge as a Grand Slam champ.

It was just as well that her first Grand Slam crown came with Mahesh Bhupathi, her mentor and friend, as the partner. Though at 34, Mahesh Bhupathi may not have many active years left at the pro circuit, the Australian Open victory has given his career a new lease.

He just about missed bagging a “double” for the second time, as Mahesh and Mark Knowles of Bahamas lost in the final of the men’s doubles, which was their first Slam title round after forging a partnership last year.

And to think of it, 14 months ago, when Mahesh went for a lower back surgery in Melbourne, he was contemplating of quitting the game. But yet another Grand Slam crown in his collection will certainly spur him on to win a few more titles at the French, Wimbledon and the US Open championships before he fades from the scene. “Let’s hope a lot more people play and tennis grows. It’ been growing. This must take it to another level” Mahesh said after the Slam triumph

As for Sania Mirza, this win has come at a time, when her career was going haywire, and ranking was slipping to the depth. Sania was dogged by injuries last year, wrist, knee, stomach etc – and for six months, she had not even touched a tennis racket. And off court controversy only added to her problems. But she fought back adversity with determination and resilience to finally nail the Slam for which she had always looked a contender, but could never really realise her potential. Even at Melbourne, she played with a torn abdomen muscle through pain killers, and the injury has forced her to pull out of the Fed Cup team.

The success of 16-year-old Delhi boy Yuki Bhambri is the most rewarding. Unlike the 23-year-old Somdev Devvarman, age is on his side. “And I have more power and accuracy in serves now”, he noted. Last year, Yuki had lost to Bernard Tonic, the eventual winner, in the semis. But this time, he went there well-prepared, and the No 2 world ranking only cemented his credentials for the title. At the showpiece Rod Laver arena, the Delhi boy displayed remarkable poise and composure, with swift movements and solid ground-strokes, to come up trumps.

The Grand Slam title and the No 1 ranking have given him the necessary confidence to make a foray into the senior circuit, as he can afford to compete and bide his time at the senior level and then go for the kill when the time and his game is really ripe.

Yuki, who was the top seed, not only justified his seeding in singles, but also did well in the doubles with his Taipei partner Liang Chi-Huang, though the top seeds exited in the semis.

Yuki played with such a command that he dropped just one set — in the opening match — on way to the top. But he would not be totally out of the junior circuit as he has indicated that he may chance his arm in the Wimbledon and US Open boys events alongside battling it out with the “big boys” in the senior circuit.

Yuki’s coach Aditya Sachdeva is satisfied with his ward’s progress. “Yuki has proved that he has the talent to make it big”, he said. Yuki has hugely benefited from his stint at the famed Nick Bolletieri Academy in Florida (US), and he would be going there for another session this month.
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The Rafa edge
Julian Linden

The good news for Roger Federer is that he may still achieve his life’s dream of winning more grand slam titles than any other man. Federer only needs one more major to match Pete Sampras’ record of 14 and at the age of 27, time is still on his side.But the bad news for the Swiss master is that even if does get the record, he may not hold it long. His greatest challenger now is not the man in front, but the one coming from behind. Spain’s Rafa Nadal captured his sixth grand slam title when he beat Federer in an epic five-set thriller at the Australian Open on Sunday.

It was an enthralling match that Federer might just as easily have won but the result erased any doubts over just who is the top player in the world right now. “I love to win,” Nadal told reporters on Monday as he prepared to leave Australia.

“I love the competition. Not only in tennis, I love the competition in all aspects of life. “When I compete, I love to be there and fight to win.” Nadal has now beaten Federer in 13 of the 19 matches they have played, including each of the last five. Significantly, Nadal has beaten Federer in five of their seven grand slam finals.

The first three were at the French Open, Nadal’s favourite event, but the last two were at Wimbledon and Melbourne Park, which should have favoured the Swiss. If not for the Spaniard, Federer would have already sailed past Sampras’s mark and laid an undeniable claim to being the greatest player of all time. But any arguments about just who is the greatest player have now been put on hold because of Nadal’s continuing rise and improvement.

While Nadal has been responsible for stalling Federer’s relentless march towards Sampras’s record, the Spaniard has also done him a great service. Just as Sampras had Agassi to contend with, Federer now has a truly great rival ensuring any future grand slams will be hard earned and therefore all the more valuable.

For Nadal, the question of which one of them is the best player is a mute point. “He has 13 grand slams. I have six. The Masters Cup, he has won four. I have not won one. So there’s no discussion,” Nadal said.

“I say right now Roger is the best because he has all these titles. Maybe later (I can be). The rankings show I was the best player in the last year. That’s the truth but I am not the best player.”

Although he still has a long way to go to join Sampras and Federer, all the early indicators suggest Nadal is well on target. The crafty lefthander has accrued his six grand slam titles at the age 22. When Federer was the same age, he had just won his first grand slam title. Sampras, at 22, had three.

Nadal won his six titles from 20 grand slam appearances. The only man to do it quicker was Bjorn Borg, who won his sixth title in his 18th event. And unlike Federer and Sampras, who were never able to win grand slams on clay, Nadal has won majors on three different surfaces.

He is almost unbeatable on clay but has now mastered grass and hardcourt, increasing his chances of winning the U.S. Open and completing a full set of grand slam titles, a feat that proved beyond Sampras and continues to elude Federer. Nadal’s win in Melbourne has even raised speculation he could achieve the sport’s ultimate goal of winning all four majors in the same year, a feat only Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) have managed.

The centre court at the Australian Open is named after Laver and the Australian was there to present the winner’s trophy to Nadal on Sunday. Nadal was moved by the occasion but does not think his brush with greatness will inspire him to achieve a calendar-year grand slam.

Indeed, he believes Federer has a better chance of winning the French Open than the Spaniard has of winning in New York. “Roger played the last three years in the final at Roland Garros... so for sure he’s going to be one of the big favourites to win that,” Nadal said. “It’s easier to win one title like Roland Garros for Roger than me winning the grand slam. That’s no competition.” — Reuters

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High-flying Kiwi
Sandeep Rana

After spending eight years as understudy to first choice Paul Woolford, former New Zealand goalkeeper, it was at the Punjab Gold Cup hockey that Kyle Marshall Pontifex played as a number the one goalkeeper for the Black Sticks, on a regular basis.

The match they played against Germany in the first round of the tournament holds special memory for Kyle as he was adjudged the man of the match. “Yes, I was happy. But it would have been beter if we could have wont he game. Germany scored two late goals and drew level. I wish I could have a kept a clean sheet?”: says the 28-year-old Pontifex.

“As a second choice goalkeeper, I played 70 Test matches. I have put in good performances and been applauded for them as well, but bagging the man of the match as a number one goalkeeper is special for me”, says Pontifex who earned his first cap for the national team in 2001 against Malaysia.

His performances have been rather consistent since the time he donned the national cap, however, he hogged the limelight at the 2005 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, where he was at his miserly best during the bronze medal match; almost an ode to his development as a goalkeeper. “That was a big day for me not because I performed well but because the team also performed well in the Championship,” says the goalkeeper who considers his agility and quick reaction time as his biggest assets.

Kyle feels that this is the best Indian side he has ever seen playing. “Its always difficult to beat a side at its home ground, for first you get the advantage of the turf, which you are familiar with and secondly the feverish home crowd’s support. Especially in India. It is always a morale-boosting factor,” he quips.

The New Zealand goalkeeper who stands like the Rock of Gibraltar between his rival team and the goal is enjoying his tour in India. “It’s a good learning experience for us. And our side has introduced five new faces in order to prepare well for the coming World Cup to be held in India,” he concludes.

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