Birthday boy Balaji triumphs

Second seed rallies past Prajnesh to wear singles crown

Birthday boy Balaji triumphs
After struggling to find his rhythm in the first set, a change in strategy backed by an improved serve helped second seed Sriram Balaji outwit top seed and compatriot Prajnesh Gunneswaran in the final of the $15000 ITF Futures tennis tournament here at the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association (KSLTA) courts on Saturday. Balaji, who faltered in the doubles final with Vishnu Vardhan on Friday, gave himself a perfect birthday gift by winning 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 to take home his ninth singles ITF crown.

The duo, included in the Davis Cup squad for the Asia/Oceania Zone tie against Uzbekistan in April here, had earlier met in the Bhilai ITF final where Prajnesh had emerged winner. Displaying great control over his shots to take the first set with ease, Prajnesh looked set to get the better of Balaji for the second straight time. 
 
However, Balaji, playing from the baseline with little success in the first set, made a comeback into the contest with some fine serve and volley play. The Coimbatore player forced Prajnesh to commit errors by moving closer to the net quite often. Balaji then looked a better player in the final set with a string of powerful serves.

“I was playing from the back, which is his strength. He is got a big game and a big forehand. So from the beginning of the second set I started serve and volleying. I was winning lot of points on my serve and that put the pressure on him,” said Balaji who turned 27.
 
Both the players held their serves in the first two games of the first set before Prajnesh broke to go 2-1 up. At 30-15 in the third game, Balaji handed Prajnesh the breakpoint after he produced a forehand error and followed it up with a double fault. Prajnesh grabbed the chance with his service return. The southpaw held his serve and broke Balaji again in the fifth game to take a 4-1 lead. Balaji found it hard to stage a recovery and lost the set 2-6.

In the second set, the battle went with serves for the first seven games before Balaji got the crucial break. Down 3-4 and 30-40, Prajnesh sent down a double fault to help his rival take a 5-3 lead. Balaji held his serve to take the final into the decider.

At 3-3 and leading 40-15, Prajnesh failed to close out the game and instead gave Balaji the break by committing four straight unforced errors. Balaji’s strong serves then saw him take the tie 6-4. Balaji, who turned 27 on Saturday, received a prize money of $2160 while Prajnesh won $1272.  

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