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Saturday, June 30, 2001

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Masterly display by Sheetal

By Kamesh Srinivasan

NEW DELHI, JUNE 29. Sheetal Goutham asserted her domestic reign by clinching the $ 5000 ITF women's circuit Masters title with a hard earned 6-7 (2-7), 7-5, 7-6 (7-1) victory over Megha Vakharia at the DLTA Complex here on Friday.

The 20-year-old, who had won the Masters title in a similar tournament at the same venue in March, celebrated her triumph by taking the doubles title. Sheetal and Liza Pereira, made it a four in a row of doubles titles in the circuit, as they warded off the spirited pair of Preeti Rao and Samrita Sekar 7-6 (9-7), 6-0, saving a setpoint in the tie-break.

It was a marathon final that Sheetal played in conquering the 16- year-old Megha, a free-stroking left-hander. Megha may have to wait for her turn as she could not convert her chances in a contest that spanned two hours and 54 minutes.

It was an ideal clash - between a defensive player and an attacker, who does not hesitate to play her strokes, irrespective of the situation. It was also a quality check of the emerging talent by Sheetal, as she tested the younger opponent thoroughly, and eventually had no option but to crown her own self as the champion.

Sheetal had a flying start, racing to a 5-1 lead, breaking Megha in the first and third games, even as the latter started on the wrong note serving three doublefaults in succession in the first game. However, the start helped Megha more than Sheetal as the former broke open the shell in playing some breathtaking strokes to jump right back into the match.

Megha, who had beaten Sheetal in straight sets in the quarterfinals of the first leg in Mumbai, came back strongly into the match, as she hammered 17 winners, including seven passing shots, as Sheetal made injudicious approaches to the net. In contrast, Sheetal could not respond to the challenge, except for saving a setpoint in the 12th game and had a mere five winners in the first set.

In the second set, Megha was serving for the match at 5-4, when Sheetal made a last hurrah and swung the match around. ``At that stage I thought it was all over. But she started making mistakes on crucial points and I was able to get back'', said Sheetal, quite tired, but thrilled with the experience.

When she was two points away from wrapping it up, Megha came up with a doublefault, and she followed that with a forehand hit long, to lose momentum by getting broken in the tenth game of the second set.

Megha could still have forced the tie-break, but netted a overhead to face a setpoint and put the next shot out to lose all initiative.

In the second set, Megha had 20 winners including six volleys, but Sheetal was by now getting back into the contest and hit 10 winners. Sheetal saved four breakpoints in the fifth game and one more in the seventh to keep herself in the fray and was the master in the end.

Into the decider, Megha was serving for the match for the second time at 5-4, after five exchange of breaks, and was again two points away from $ 800 and five WTA points, at 30-30. She erred twice again to lose ground.

Megha saved three matchpoints to hold serve in the 12th game, but slipped in the final tie-break with errors. Sheetal had five more matchpoints at 6-1, and converted the first of them as Megha put her backhand into the net.

Megha hit 16 winners in the decider to 14 by Sheetal. But in the overall analysis, it was the less erratic ways of Sheetal that won her the day, not to forget her courage to be out there against an opponent who was firing on all cylinders right through, despite the oppressive weather.

Sheetal had 70 errors and three doublefaults in all to Megha's 89 mistakes and six doublefaults. Megha's 53 winners and two aces may not have been sufficient to win her the title this day, but they will help her progress a lot quicker on the WTA ladder.

Sheetal may have to be content to being the quality control manager, with her defensive approach. But then, she plays well within her limitations, and has proved once again that she can beat anyone, even at the end of four weeks of energy-sapping exercise.

In sharing the four titles, two each with the top- seeded Sonal Phadke, and beating the latter twice, Sheetal showed that she was the best in the field.

The results (finals):

Singles: Sheetal Goutham bt Megha Vakharia 6-7 (2-7), 7-5, 7-6 (7-1).

Doubles: Sheetal Goutham & Liza Pereira bt Preeti Rao & Samrita Sekar 7-6 (9-7), 6-0.

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