It was a day when the weather had as much forgiveness in it as startup bosses. On October 1 at the National Games, the sun hammered down on the pale blue tennis courts of the Sabarmati Sports Complex. The river, right by courtside, lazed by, like a crocodile that had swallowed a Gujarati thali for lunch. It did not oblige the players with much breeze at all.
Despite the dry and hot conditions, and despite playing right during the noon hours, Manas Dhamne, 14, will have pleasant memories of this otherwise barren day, when nearly everyone around wore hats and sunglasses. One of the exciting young Indian talents to emerge in tennis, the 14-year-old from Pune came back from 2-5 down, and then match point down, against Faisal Qamar, 23, of Services.
Dhamne’s 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 win, completed with a forehand down the line that Qamar couldn’t handle, enabled Maharashtra to win the team gold.
The match was a classic also because it was a clash of styles, and possessed the two critical ingredients of great sport – fierceness and respect of the opponent.
There also was atmosphere. Teammates and support groups at courtside cheered the players on. On court, Dhamne’s corner was more vocal, with verbal nourishment such as:
“Lai Bhaari!” (Too good!)
“Tu rajya kartoyes!” (You are ruling).
“Jidda dakhav.” (Show fight).
“Body language, body language!”
Faisal’s corner largely stuck to ‘Come on!’ and ‘Body language!’
On changeovers, Dhamne and Faisal were like boxers, bent over in their chairs, coaches and teammates cooling them down by pressing ice packs on their necks and rubbing ice cubes on their faces. Each had a red plastic ice-box with several bottles of water by his chair.
Faisal is that rare breed of tennis romantic, a serve-and-volleyer. He displayed such touch that sometimes it drew applause from the Maharashtra corner.
Dhamne, on his part, is a solid back-courter. His contribution to the highlight reel was brave passing shots in pressure situations that enabled him to turn the match.
“I was playing point by point, game by game, trying not to think too much, and then I won,” Dhamne told Outlook. “I didn’t know for sure if I would win, but I knew I was going to fight. It feels great to win a gold for Maharashtra.”
Asked if he had a natural gift for passing shots, he said, “Usually I don’t play so many serve-and-volleyers. My previous match was against a similar opponent, so I got some practice [of passing shots].”
Faisal had a couple of outbursts towards the chair umpire, accusing her of being biased towards Maharashtra. But he was gracious towards his young opponent.
“He played unbelievable tennis,” Faisal said later, on a grassy mound facing the river. “He is just 14 and doing really well. Had I held at 4-0, the match would have been all but over. But then he hit some great shots, while I didn’t play my best.”
Dhamne, who trains frequently in Italy at the Piatti Tennis Centre, seemed out of it in the decider. Faisal held a marathon first game after several deuces. Then he broke Dhamne, again after deuce. When Faisal raced to 4-0, it seemed over for Dhamne.
He crept back up but Faisal did enough to inch ahead to matchpoint, with Dhamne serving at 4-5. On the brink of victory, Faisal hit a short forehand slice that nearly died after bouncing. Dhamne, stationed deep on the court, did not look like he would reach the ball in time. But he hustled and sliced a forehand crosscourt that beat a lunging Faisal at the net. The point was Dhamne’s. And a few minutes later, the match too.
Speaking about his gameplan on matchpoint, Dhamne said, “I just tried to rally. I wasn’t going to go for a risky shot. I was going to force him to play risky shots. If he still hit a winner, well done to him. He hit a good slice but then I also came up with a good passing shot.”
The life of pro athletes is such that they are permanent travelers. Dhamne was to fly to Malaysia the same night of his milestone victory. Faisal will head to Tunisia at some point in the near future. But whichever corner of the globe they are in, a part of them will always remember Ahmedabad.