2002: Overall, not a bad show

The week-long Tata Open 2002 started as a low-key event, but picked up considerably in the last few days, thanks to the exploits of the famed Indian duo of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi.

GUILLERMO CANAS Tata Open winner

Guillermo Canas of Argentina justified his rating by winning the Tata Open.   -  V. Ganesan

What happened to the crowds that had thronged the SDAT-Nungambakkam Stadium only last year, one wondered early in the week. Lack of star quality was the only plausible reason. But then the cut-off ranking of 117 for the main draw was the highest in the history of the Open.

But those who got to witness the event would tell you that it did produce some riveting contests, some exciting duels, and some nail-biting finishes. With the singles proving a disappointment for the Indians, the fear that spectator interest will further get diluted only gained currency.

Amidst the gloom, one man who made the tournament come alive was the unseeded 22-year-old Paradorn Srichaphan from Thailand. Coming in as an alternate for Vladimir Voltchkov, he went on to steal the limelight reaching his first ever ATP final.

Trained by father Chanachai, the Thailand No.1. has developed an all-court game, his strong point being his powerful forehand and a backhand which he hits with the full flourish of the racquet. He volleys well too when the situation demands. Playing in the Challengers and Futures before the Tata Open, his performance here in reaching the final would rank as his best. A big leap it was for the simple and unassuming young man.

On the other hand, the top-seed Guillermo Canas of Argentina slowly worked up his way. He knew what he wanted from the first match. He displayed a maturity and the consistency of a champion and his endurance and shot-making abilities were remarkable.

Canas breezed past George Bastl of Switzerland in the first round, then blunted the big serving 6 foot 11 inches tall Ivo Karlovic, before defeating Czech Republic's Jiri Vanek who pulled out in the second set citing pain in the lower back in the quarterfinals.

The top-seed's skills were put to the severest test in the semifinals when he faced the talented Slovakian Karol Kucera. Canas, however, recovered quickly after losing the first set.

While the centre court quarterfinal match between Srichaphan and the second-seed Swede Thomas Johansson was holding all the attention, a classic duel in an outside court at the same time went unnoticed.

Serving to stay in the match at 4-5 in the second set, third-seed Frenchman Fabrice Santoro saved two matchpoints and two more in the tiebreaker, before wrapping up the second set. He went on to win the tiebreak with his third set point. Santoro again fought back from being 0-40 on his serve in the decider to make it 5-5.

In the tiebreaker which ensued, which too was neck and neck Kucera finally took two straight points with a backhand down the line winner, followed by a drop volley, to take the set and with that the match in exactly three hours.

"It's a pity. I should have won 6-2, 6-4. I made life tough for myself today. Of course I was happy to be involved in one of my best matches," said the 27-year old Kucera, who is making a comeback after a wrist injury. The scoreline 6-2, 6-7 (9-11), 7-6 (7-5) highlights the closeness of the battle.

Santoro accepted the defeat with all graciousness. "It's not bad to lose after giving 100 per cent and getting involved in one of my best matches. The crowd was also great."

As has been the regular feature in the tournament, several seeds packed off early. Belarus' Max Mirnyi, the fifth seed, eighth seeded Slovakian Dominik Hrbaty, defending champion and the seventh seed Michal Tabara of Czech Republic, and the second-seed Swede Thomas Johansson, all lost early.

Canas became only the second player to win the Chennai event as a top-seed, the last being Australia's Patrick Rafter in 1998.

Meanwhile, Srichaphan, the Asian champion, with an ATP ranking of 116, was a revelation at the Tata Open. As a lone Asian fighting it out, after the quick exit of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, he had the crowd totally behind him, and that was only to be expected.

The big serving Max Miryni was the first victim of Srichaphan. Returning serves well, and hitting beautiful passing shots, Srichaphan emerged a creditable winner against the player from Belarus. Moreover, he endeared himself to the crowd with the 'Namaste' gesture at the end of each and every match.

The biggest upset was inflicted by the Thai to the second-seed Thomas Johansson. He got better with every match, and his defeat of Romanian Andrei Pavel, the fourth seed, in the semifinal only raised the expectations of his fans further.

The much-awaited singles final between Guillermo Canas and Srichaphan started on a disastrous note for the latter, with the Argentinean racing to a 5-1 lead in the first set with sound baseline play. But Srichaphan did make a fightback but that was not enough as Canas won the first set quite convincingly at 6-4.

With the crowd rooting for him, the Thai found his rhythm in the second hitting those free flowing backhand and forehand winners. But Canas, with excellent retrievals did not allow Srichaphan to settle down. Srichaphan too did not help himself as he committed numerous unforced errors from the back of the court. The final lasted for 106 minutes, Canas winning 6-4, 7-6 (2).

For Srichaphan, it was tournament where he realised his potential and importantly on the way surpassed everybody's and his own expectations. "I am really happy with my performance. The crowd support was excellent. I hope to be back here next year," said Srichaphan.

Srichaphan would be grateful to his father Chanachai for what he is today. Chanachai, who runs a Tennis Academy back home, monitors his son's play closely. A martinet, he is, for sure. "Apart from my father, my two brothers (elder) also help me in my tennis," Srichaphan said.

The fact that his father filmed his son final match on a video is proof enough of his sincerity and devotion to the job and how much he wants his son to come up.

Of course, Canas did everything right during the summit clash - served well, returned well, and his ground strokes were on target. "It's great to win and I shall be back here next year," said a delighted Canas. The year 2001 was great for the Argentinean as he jumped to 14 from 140.

When asked what this victory means for the football crazy fans of Argentina, Canas put things in perspective when he said that the win would make few tennis people happy especially at the time when the country is facing an economic crisis.

The 1999 winner Byron Black had to qualify for the main draw. After the ankle injury he suffered in March 2001, it has been a tough year for Black as he lost points, forcing him to play in the qualifying rounds. He told The Sportstar that 2002 could probably be his last year. He did not last long losing to Croatian Ivo Karlovic in the first round.

There was a surprise visitor to the stadium on the third day in cricketer Kapil Dev. A sober evening was lightened up by the elephant ride he had with another tennis great Vijay Amritraj.

The two were taken around the centre court on an adorned elephant "spreading the message of peace". Another added attraction on the final day was the Indian senior hockey team which had gathered to see the doubles final.

In the end there was not just one winner but five - Canas, Srichaphan, Leander, Mahesh, and of course the Chennai crowd!

The final:

Singles: 1-Guillermo Canas (Arg) bt Paradorn Srichaphan (Tha) 6-4, 7-6 (2); semifinals: Guillermo Canas bt Karol Kucera (Svk) 4-6, 6-3, 6-3; Paradorn Srichaphan bt 4-Andrei Pavel (Rom) 6-3, 6-4.

(As appeared in The Sportstar on January 19, 2002)