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SPORTSTAR - 4/04/2004

MELANIE SOUTH'S DREAM TITLE

TENNIS / ITF FUTURES (MUMBAI LEG)

FIRST day, first show is an experience movie-goers look forward to.

Melanie South overcame early jitters to emerge the singles champion.

FIRST day, first show is an experience movie-goers look forward to. First week, first title marked a dream debut for Melanie South, crowned the International Tennis Federation's Women's Futures singles champion on her maiden visit to India. A strapping 17-year-old Londoner living within shouting distance of Wimbledon courts, she chose Mumbai as a stop on the tennis tour to soak in a new culture. She played with absolute abandon up to the final and ended up with her first Futures title, picking up $ 1600 and 16 WTA points as part of the booty.

"I came here to see places," said Melanie, after defeating Chinese opponent Chen Yan Chong 6-4, 6-4. "This is my first ITF title at this level. I began preparing for the event from July. All the hard work paid off," remarked the British teenager, who was fortunate enough to train at Queen's Club and see some of the world stars in action. Ranked 607th coming into the Mumbai leg, sponsored by Mother's Recipe, the champion overcame first set jitters and a rash of double-faults to have Chen on the run. "Being my first final, the pressure to do well was certainly there at the start, but became easier to handle once the match started."

Melanie, a fan of the Monica Seles type of slam-bang tennis, was unstoppable once she began lashing double-handed backhand volleys from various angles along the baseline. She also kept the Chinese on a leash with shallow topspin forehands. "I am an aggressive player and enjoyed hitting on these courts," said the singles winner, about her comfort level on Shivaji Park Gymkhana hard courts, where the wind blowing across from the sea made balls wobble when tossed up for serves. The Briton was too involved in the joy of winning matches to worry about adversity, her body language positive right through the week. She won four matches (three in straight sets) in the run-up to the decider, stunning top seed Chuang Chia-Jung of Chinese Taipei in the third round.

Melanie's shaky first serves encouraged Chen to take a few steps inside the baseline on second serve. The Briton swung the momentum her way in the ninth game, marked by long rallies and legwork from both before game point was decided on the fifth breakpoint. The unseeded but spirited Chinese girl, also 17 and playing her second ITF tournament in India, ended up reacting to situations created by the champion's superior control and shot making ability. "The final was my best performance," observed the London girl, studying in Nonsuch High School, comparing the five victories en route to her first Futures title.

She began with straight sets win over qualifiers Katie Miles and Rebecca Llewellyn in the first two matches, demolished top seed Chuang (305th) in the quarter-finals and qualifier Shu Jing Yang in the last four stage. The success of this British teenager, a greenhorn on the women's circuit and a newcomer to Indian conditions, can be attributed to self-belief and absence of pressure to perform. Chen, spearhead of the Chinese invasion in the 2004 Futures, also exceeded expectations by making the final from the lower half of the draw. "It is very hot here," remarked the 17-year-old from Guang Zhou province.

Yang Shu-Jing and Ying Yu, winners of the doubles crown. Pic. ATUL KAMBLE
Language was a barrier when giving vent to her thoughts, but she displayed no inhibitions on court, wearing down rivals with constant retrieving and catching them off-balance almost everytime she got into position for double-handed backhands directed to the corners. The Chinese teen, ranked 713 and just one of the unseeded challengers in the main draw, defeated four higher ranked players, including eighth seed Diana Julianto (566), second seed Rushmi Chakravarthi (357) and fourth seed Montinee Tangpong (393) to storm into the most important match of the Mumbai week against Melanie South. She pocketed $ 1000 and 12 points.

The Indians had a tough time, with seeds Sai Jayalakshmy and Sonal Phadke not clearing the first hurdle, Rushmi going out in the second round. Wild card Iciri Rai stunned third seed Chin Bee Khoo in the opener, only to bow out at the next step along with unseeded Archana Venkataraman. The local challengers wasted a valuable opportunity to collect prize money and WTA points in favourable conditions, unable to match the temperament of Melanie and Chen, the confident British teenager and an army of Chinese youngsters making their mark in an alien land, their hunger to win overcoming acclimatisation problems.



by NANDAKUMAR MARAR



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