THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: As Ankita Raina and Prarthana Thombare were tugged in an absorbing tussle for the women’s title in sultry conditions, Ramkumar Ramanathan, hiding his face in the racquet, was gently warming up for the men’s title-decider that was to follow. Twenty-odd minutes later, he seated himself on the dusty floor of the gallery and seemed engrossed in the intense match.
Soon trotted in Ramkumar’s challenger in the summit clash, Sriram Balaji, his gargantuan kit slinging on his shoulders. “I couldn’t see the full movie. There were so many interruptions,” he shot off. “Don’t worry, we’ll watch it tonight together,” soothed Ramanathan. They began dissecting the game that was being played out in front of their eyes. “Samma vaiyil da (it’s very hot),” observed Ramanthan. “Karma (fate) da,” Balaji retorted.
From the same State, of more or less the same age group, and familiarised by numerous matches as opponents and sparring partners, the two shares a special bond. Soon joined Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan and Rushmi Chakravarthi, and one corner of the gallery was alive with chuckles and chatters, mostly in Tamil. On court, Ankita was spinning a spirited comeback when Ramanathan, the most studious-looking of the trio, reminded Balaji of the final. Reluctantly they picked their racquets, they trudged off to the court and waited for Ankita to wrap her match.
None of this comradeship, though, manifested on the court. Balaji creaked like a rickety old bike in the first set whereas Ramkumar whirred like a smooth Ninja. He broke him straightaway. The ferocious forehands and well-disguised killers were all in evidence as he stupefied his friend 6-2. “The start was poor, and (I) made quite a few errors. Most importantly, he capitalised on them in clinical fashion,” Balaji admitted.
It wasn’t a case of Balaji not being aware of his opponent’s game, but he knew him too much. But his judgment of length and anticipation of shots were abysmal. He didn’t have a second serve; rather he thundered in a couple of firsts.
In the second set, Balaji went for broke. He pressed hard for a break and probed the India No 4 with low volleys. Though he could still not break him, he at least clung onto his serve. At 3-3, the set seemed to be headed for a tight finish, but Balaji caved as Ramkumar wrapped up the second set 6-4. After the match, both shook hands and walked back together to the change room, perhaps resuming their filmy conversation.
Conversely, the women’s final was as tense as intense. The first set was bizarre as both traded two breaks apiece and were locked at 5-5. But Ankita broke Prarthana in the 11th game and held onto her serve to win the set 7-5. But Prarthana responded stoically in the second set, breaking the India top seed in the second game and storming away to a 3-0 lead. But Ankita summoned up her experience and snuffed out her errors. She eschewed risks and held her rival for long rallies, and thus tired her out.
At 3-3, with Ankita on break point, Prarthana reckoned her opponent’s backhand had pitched outside the baseline. But the chair umpired deemed otherwise and a distraught Prarthana animatedly argued with him. Thereafter, she conceded the impression that she had already surrendered.