January 7, 2017 5:45:07 am
Andres Molteni struck the ball hard and true. A full-blooded forehand hit from just inside the baseline. It was a shot hit with more venom because of the frustration Purav Raja and Divij Sharan had caused the Argentine and his compatriot Guillermo Duran. And the point still didn’t go their way.
Raja had stayed closer than arm’s length from the net. Molteni’s forehand came to him at the rate of knots. There wasn’t much time for him to move his feet. It didn’t matter though. Raja’s play is more about his wristwork than his movement. He stood poised, throwing his racquet at the incoming ball. Yet with the softest of hands, he guided it back over the net for a drop shot that left both Argentines rooted to the spot.
It brought up set point in the first set of the doubles semi-final at the Chennai Open. It would take them another 35 minutes to close out the match to progress to their first ever final at the tournament, winning 6-4, 6-2.
Raja was a menace at the net. But it wasn’t exactly an array of shots that he had to unleash to uproot the Argentinian pair. Rather, just the simple soft-handed dink over the net that would sink to the closing second bounce without much fuss or delay. He did need his partner Sharan’s strong service game to play ally to the drop-shot assault.
The share of responsibilities in the Sharan-Raja duo is straightforward. Sharan, the left- hander, is the hard worker who operates mainly on the baseline. Raja, meanwhile, is a master at the net. The duo worked in perfect sync, especially on Sharan’s serve, since the Delhi boy is the stronger server and Raja the stronger volleyer. They cut down points to two shots and conceded only three points in the first set on their serve.
“We were both feeling it today,” says Sharan, after they became the first Indian pair to reach the final in Chennai since Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes won the tournament in 2011.
Sharan served in the sixth game of the first set, with the Indian duo already a break up 3-2. The first three points were almost identical. Sharan served down the T, the opponent would send a return that Raja would kill off – cushioning his volley so the ball would drop just a few inches from the net on the Argentinians’ side.
Over the past year, Sharan-Raja have mastered the I-formation – where the server and volleyer would be positioned in almost a straight line — to bag four Challenger titles and an ATP 250 event victory.
“It’s been working well for us. It keeps the opponent guessing on which way the volleyer will move and it’s good to play those mind games,” Sharan says.
Also deceptive is Raja’s physical prowess. Although he admits he isn’t one of the fittest professional players around, his quick hands at the net and court-craft make up for it. He’s also an astute reader of the game.
“I’m definitely working towards getting fitter, stronger and faster. I’m playing with an extremely fit and fast player in Divij. Everyone has their strengths and we know how to hide our weaknesses. But this is one area I’m trying to work on and it has definitely gotten better,” Raja adds.
The 31-year-old killed off the last point in the match as well — again using the same strategy. Sharan served down the T at 40-15, and Raja neatly tapped the ball into play — in a style that is steadily becoming their signature move.
A benefit of the outer court, at least for the audience, is that they are very close to the players. After the dominating win, the pair was hounded for autographs and selfies. They soaked in the their new-found stardom.
Even at the post-match press conference, the pair was happy to share more than the usual allotted time.
“It’s great that they (fans) like us now. We are improving match by match. So I hope Indians finally get to know about us,” says Raja.
In their first-round match at the event, the pair took down Indian legend Leander Paes, who had paired up with Brazilian Andre Sa. In the final, there is a possibility that they will meet India’s top-ranked doubles player Rohan Bopanna and local boy Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan.
“We get the same points if we beat them or anyone else. But at the same time it’s great to be playing these stalwarts in India,” he adds.
Should they add a Bopanna scalp to their list, they will give India something new to look forward to in the doubles game.
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