ITF women's circuit sans stars begins today

INDORE, MAY 7. The Indian tennis circuit may sometimes lead to deja vu as it makes its slow journey around familiar stops. The places and even most of the faces may remain the same; it is the breakthroughs from the best of the crop that mark the passage of time.

The month-long ITF women's $20,000 circuit, which begins with the Bridgestone first leg at the Yeshwant Club here on Monday, could well be one of those breakthrough events. This, apart from the fact that there are indications to the contrary on Sunday. Fed Cuppers Sai Jayalakshmy and Manisha Malhotra have decided to give the gruelling four-week circuit a miss, and try their luck overseas. Plus there were withdrawals not only from former National champion Rushmi Chakravarthi, but also the four overseas players who had sent in their entries. This exodus has taken the big names and with them, much of the prestige of an ITF women's event.

But it has thrown open the entire circuit and left the resilient Venkataraman sisters leading the seeds, but facing a very real challenge from the country's top juniors. The teenagers are led by the fast-rising Sonal Phadke, whose performances at the two ITF women's $10,000 events have given her a WTA ranking of 667 from two main draws and made her the No. 2 seed here. She is joined by the National grasscourt champion Radhika Tulpule, who has just come off the Indian Fed Cup campaign in Osaka, where the Indians failed by the narrowest of margins against the greatest of odds to progress to the second round.

Sonal and Radhika lead the pack of juniors which also contains under-18 and No. 3 Liza Pereira and top 10 player Geeta Manohar. There is also a dangerous floater in former National junior champion Sheethal Gautham of Bangalore, who has returned to the circuit after a gap of six months, due to illness followed by her Std XII examinations.

Unfortunately, apart from its format, where the circuit will suffer the most is in its timing. Along with this four-week ITF event, not only is the AITA conducting three National ranking under-16 events, but has scheduled an under-18 event as well as sending a team for the under-16 World Youth Cup.

This meant that several players from the junior ranks, including two who did well in the two ITF women's $10,000 events last month, Megha Vakharia and Isha Lakhani, will not get another chance to take a tilt at the older girls. Another promising junior Nandita Chandrasekhar is on an ITF junior team overseas and cannot benefit from the ongoing circuit.

As a result, there were only 23 players to place into a draw of 32 today, giving all the seeded players byes into the pre- quarterfinals. Radhika Mandke has benefitted from the luck of the draw and received a bye into the pre-quarterfinals where she will play the eighth-seeded Sheethal.

Apart from its timing, the format of the $20,000 circuit remains an unpopular one, its flaws far outweighing its merits. It takes three weeks to enough earn points to play in the fourth Masters week, and only performances in the Masters translate into WTA points.

The first time such a circuit was conducted in 1998 there were three foreign players. This year there are none. Probably because the scheduling of the circuit at the height of the summer in places - Indore, Mumbai, Pune and Delhi - where the weather will be far from pleasant, is virtually an invitation to an ordeal. The fact that there are players willing undergo it, says far more for their tenacity rather than the wisdom of the timetable drawn up for them.

* The seedings:

Seedings (WTA ranking in brackets): 1. Archana Venkataraman (568), 2. Sonal Phadke (667), 3. Arthi Venkataraman (573), 4. Radhika Tulpule (801), 5. Geeta Manohar (860), 6. Nikita Bharadwaj (881), 7. Shalini Thakur (885) and 8. Sheethal Gautham (909).