Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rohan Bopanna learns the ABC of ATP

Well, it's back to school for Rohan Bopanna. He joined 20 other tennis players including American John Isner and Thailand's Ratiwatana siblings for a 3-day ATP workshop (March 19-21) in Orlando.

The workshop covered topics including the history of the ATP, how to control personal finances, and the importance of media and promoting the sport.

ATP University has now celebrated its 700th graduate since the program began in 1990. In fact, all Division 1 ATP player members are expected to pass through the University.

But the 28-year-old Indian now has to do more on the tennis court to salvage his singles career - he's currently ranked only 328 and lost his status as India's best male player to Prakash Amritraj.

That's more than a 100 positions below a career-high of 213 achieved in July last year.

His doubles record is sparkling though and he's back at a career-high 54 on the ATP list, thanks to a quarterfinal spot at the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships earlier this month partnering Pakistan's Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Second straight title for Mahesh Bhupathi

Winning four matches in straight sets to win his second tournament on the trot, doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi showed he's still a force to contend with on the tennis court.

Bhupathi partnered Mark Knowles of the Bahamas to beat third-seeded Czechs Martin Damm and Pavel Vizner 7-5, 7-6(7) in the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships final on Saturday.

The victory got Bhupathi his 43rd career doubles crown and a share in the $89,500 prize money for the winning pair, who had also triumphed in Memphis last week.

Bhupathi is ranked 18 on the weekly ATP ranking list and is expected to move up when the new rankings are released on Monday. As a pair, Bhupathi and Knowles are currently placed second in the ATP Doubles Race.

"It's no secret. Obviously our games compliment each other. I enjoy playing on the advantage court. Both of us are pretty hungry to win. Me personally, I haven't had a full-time partner for about two years now so the opportunity to play with someone as good as Mark is exciting for me and I have been working pretty hard," Bhupathi said after the final.

"We've been friends for 15 years even though we haven't played together, everything matches and we're looking forward to carrying on the form," he said.

Bhupathi has won the Dubai title twice before - with Leander Paes (1998) and Fabrice Santoro (2004).

After an ominous 2008 debut in Sydney, where they bowed out in their opening match, Bhupathi and Knowles had reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in January and the quarterfinals at San Jose last month. They are now 13-3 for the year, having won their last eight matches in straight sets.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

INTERVIEW - Sunitha Rao's coach Bill Eastburn

It's the premier tennis event in India and yet no Indian player progressed to the second round of the WTA Bangalore Open 2008. Sania Mirza opted out while wildcards Isha Lakhani and Shikha Uberoi were no match for their opponents.

But why was 22-year-old Sunitha Rao, India's no. 2 player, denied a chance to shine in the main draw of the event? Why were the wildcards handed to players ranked below her? Although Rao eventually faltered in the final round of qualifying; some would argue her game was affected by needless controversy.

In a free-wheeling interview, Rao's coach Bill Eastburn told the Indian Tennis Blog what he thought of the situation. (Please note that the views expressed in the interview are his own and not necessarily those expressed by Sunitha Rao)

How long have you coached Sunitha Rao?
I have been the full-time private coach for Sunitha since September 2003. I have travelled with her to just about every one of her professional events since this time, travelling with another one of my players as well. We live and train in Sarasota(Florida), returning there between events and typically spend our off season in Perth(Australia).

Despite being India's no. 2 player and a part of the Fed Cup team, Sunitha was not given a wildcard for the Bangalore Open. Why do you think she is being treated this way?
This is the one question I have been waiting for. Everyone involved with this tournament, as well as the so-called officials of Indian tennis are passing the buck here. No one wants to step up and be the one to say "it was my/our decision". Reason being, in my opinion, is because they simply know that it was wrong, unfair and unjust.

No matter how you approach this, there is simply no way that a country's number two ranked player should not get a wildcard into an event on her home soil. It's on the border of being criminal if you ask me. They are taking money out of her pocket and taking an opportunity away from her that she deserves - that she has earned.

At the time the decision for the maindraw wildcards was announced, Sunitha was 168 ranking spots above Lakhani and 643 ranking spots above Uberoi - are you kidding me? No disrepect at all intended towards these young ladies but as of today, Sunitha is 808 ranking spots above Uberoi! And let's get the facts straight, there are 3 wildcards available here. One is for WTA Gold/Silver Exempt, leaving two for the discretion of the tournament.

Are you going to tell me that they can confidently say that they made a fair and honest decision? No way. The Bangalore Open Tournament Director, Sunder Raju and the Tournament Manager, Sunil Yajaman, along with the AITA and whoever else was involved in this grotesquely dishonest decision should be ashamed to put it mildly. At least they should be man enough to step up and take responsibility and not push the blame back and forth between the other. I hope you print every word of this. What they did to Sunitha is deplorable.

Does the problem also stem from Sunitha being a U.S. citizen till last year?
I don't think you understand. Sunitha Rao is still a U.S. citizen. Sunitha has been cleared by the ITF to represent India in international play such as Fed Cup and the Olympics. She plays for and represents the country of her heritage, where she was born and spent some of her childhood. Her plan was to relocate and set up a training base in Bangalore to start the 2008 competitive year.

Due to not receiving some funding that she was promised, along with far too many question marks about how she would be received by the AITA, among others, we decided to wait until we find her a new financial sponsor. Decisions like not to give her a maindraw wildcard in the Bangalore Open this year support our decision to hold off on her relocating.

How does the number two ranked professional tennis player, male or female, from a country the size of India with an equity market that doubled in 2007, not financially back this promising young athlete. But that's another story - don't get me started.

Will this affect Sunitha financially? Doesn't her family support her in any way?
An answer to the first question - absolutely yes. This grotesquely unfair decision not to grant Sunitha the maindraw wildcard she deserves will and already has cost her. Hypothetically, if Sunitha were to have lost in the first round of qualifying, she would have earned $640. That would not have even covered one half of her round trip airline ticket.

Where as if she would have recieved a maindraw wildcard that she readily deserved, she would have earned a minimum of $4175, with the opportunity to earn significantly more.

Fortunately, however, despite the circumstances, while all other Indian players lost in the first round, Sunitha advanced to the third and final qualifying round. And, fortunately, she is in the maindraw of the doubles event based on her own very respectable doubles ranking of 121. That will give her the opportunity to make a little more. (Note: Rao later lost in the first round of doubles)

No, Sunitha does not receive one penny of financial support from her family and hasn't for almost two years now. It's a personal issue for her and I am not at liberty to go into detail. We will leave that alone for now please.

Do you plan to take up the issue with Indian tennis authorities or the WTA?
The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour does not have anything to do with Sunitha not getting a maindraw wildcard. They are removed from this situation and have no control over who the tournament grants these to. As far as taking it up with "Indian tennis authorities", the answer is yes. My email box is overflowing with requests for interviews from the largest newspapers in India. I am delaying this interview until after the qualifying. Trust me when I tell you that nothing will be held back. It's criminal what happened here.

How do you view Sunitha's game? Is her best yet to come?
When I began with Sunitha, she was one of the top 5 juniors in the world, actually seeded number one at Junior Wimbledon in 2003. She was an amazing competitor with a one dimensional game and limited athletic prowess. Almost four and a half years later, we have moulded her into an exceptionally strong and powerful athlete for her size.

She is a pretty strong mover, has developed exceptional balance and coordination and has come a long way in terms of controlling her body the way a top athlete needs to. Her game has grown in every facet. She now has variety with her ground strokes, able to hit with much more spin, as well as varying her targets and utlilizing more angles in her game.

Her transition and net play stand out among female players in her ranking area. She is exceptional in transition, moving forward to the net, sneaking in and taking balls in the air. She has great court awareness in the middle zone of the court where most girls are lost. Because of this, she is a solid doubles player, playing more of a classic doubles style of play, more in transition and coming forward than just staying back and pounding away from the back court.

Her forehand has come a long way. While her backhand has always been "money", her forehand is now much more in line with her backhand, thus eliminating a considerably "weaker" side. So, overall, Sunitha has developed her game consistently year after year, making improvements in every area we have addressed from strength/fitness and movement to technical and tactical issues.

Unfortunately, there has been a lot going on in her young life off the court that has affected her competitively, making it very difficult for her to compete consistently. However, I believe we are past that now, she is settling down, quieting the noise in her head and slowly starting to get back to her old competitive ways. The ways that made her one of the top juniors in the world for years.

And yes, her best is definitely yet to come. Outsiders don't understand. Every player follows a different time line. These girls develop their games, their minds, the bodies at different rates. Some players for instance, like Jill Craybas and Akiko Morigami didn't break into the top 100 and then top 50 until they were 24 years old or older. They grew into their games, gaining experience along the way and finally making their breakthrough.

Some girls, like Julie Ditty, Mashona Washington and Tzipora Obziler didn't make breakthroughs until much, much later. The issue has been that the young teen superstars disrupt the averages and grab the spotlight so the layperson thinks that you have to be a teenager to be a superstar.

I believe Sunitha is still a couple of years away from really hitting her stride. She is obsessed with fitness and conditioning, eats properly and is extremely disciplined with her training and taking care of her body. This greatly increases the career longevity for these girls. Sunitha is doing all of this. The big thing for her, however, is that she has some emotional issues to put behind her, some things that are not easy to move past. "Anchors" if you will. When she sheds these anchors I believe we will see her hit her stride - in full.

[An email sent to tournament director Sunder Raju to get his version of the issue was not answered - although he was later quoted by the DNA newspaper as saying that the wildcards were given based on the All India Tennis Association's (AITA) recommendation.

The same article quoted AITA Secretary-General Anil Khanna as saying that Rao "had got a wild card for the Sunfeast Open (at Kolkata in 2007). We are just trying to be fair to all the players."]

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mahesh Bhupathi triumphs in Memphis

Sydney was a nightmare, Melbourne was good, San Jose was okay but it was Memphis which proved lucky for Mahesh Bhupathi and Mark Knowles. The top seeds prevailed in the doubles event at the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in the US city, grabbing their first title as a pair - that too without losing a set in four matches.

In the final, Bhupathi and Knowles proved too good for Thai twins Sanchai and Sonchat Ratiwatana, triumphing 7-6(5), 6-2 in one hour and 16 minutes.

After an ominous 2008 debut in Sydney, where they bowed out in their opening match, Bhupathi and Knowles had reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in January and the quarterfinals at San Jose last month.

Sunday's victory added $23,500 to Bhupathi's wallet and saw him move one rung up to 18 on the weekly ATP ranking list. As a pair, Bhupathi and Knowles are now placed second in the ATP Doubles Race.

"We have started real well and (are) looking to continue with our form," the 33-year-old Indian told the Indian Tennis Blog.

Memphis was doubles title no. 42 in Bhupathi's career and the strapping south Indian now heads for the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships to compete with Knowles in a doubles draw that includes fellow Indians Leander Paes (with Paul Hanley) and Rohan Bopanna (with Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi).
(Pic: ATP site)
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With Somdev Devvarman (January 13, 2009 and October 4, 2007)

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