2003: Srichaphan serves a Thai delight

Hailing from a simple middle class family with a great interest in tennis, Srichaphan showed it was very much possible to attain success provided one worked hard and kept his focus towards the goal.

Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan had an easy 6-3, 6-1 victory over Slovakia's Karol Kucera in the final.

He takes pride in calling himself an Asian. And he is never tired of telling how great it feels to be in the centrestage and doing something good for Asian tennis. The new Tata Open champion Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand is the best thing to have happened to Asian tennis, nay world tennis.

Hailing from a simple middle class family with a great interest in tennis, Srichaphan showed it was very much possible to attain success provided one worked hard and kept his focus towards the goal. The tournament, carrying a prize money of $400,000, did not have any glamorous stars, but had the highest cut-off (113) in the tournament history. Srichaphan, sporting an army cut and looking leaner, provided the glamour element. Producing a spirited performance, the Thai overcame Slovakia's Karol Kucera 6-3, 6-1 in the final in front of a packed crowd at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium in Chennai.

While the much-improved performance of the Thai was the talk doing the rounds, the debate over the falling crowd support for a premier tennis event started to ring louder with each passing day. The crowd filled up only on the final day; on other days it was less than moderate. It was not that the tournament organiser — The International Management Group (IMG) — had not been aware of the changing scenario.

In fact, IMG had been quietly going about its job, considering and weighing the options of hosting the event in Hyderabad, which conducted the National Games in a successful manner recently. Ravi Krishnan, Managing Director, India & South Asia, IMG/TWI, and Senior International Vice-President, told The Sportstar, "Chennai is not ruled out. Before arriving at any decision multiple considerations such as facilities, sponsor requirements, Government and Association support have to be taken into account."

Ravi Krishnan added: "This is a tournament, which India especially Chennai should be proud of." He talked about how the tournament could be used to promote tourism. He also mentioned the support of the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu and the State Government in making the tournament a success. "At the moment", Ravi Krishnan stressed, "the idea is just a seed and nothing else," obviously referring to any change in venue.

But this much is certain: one man — Paradorn Srichaphan — has added the Asian flavour to international tennis in singles. He has improved by leaps and bounds and can now challenge the likes of Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin and other big names. Playing with supreme self-belief, and an aggressiveness matched only by a few, Srichaphan did not lose a single set in the tournament.

Another player, Karol Kucera, made a mark but in a different way. Troubled by recurring knee and wrist injuries, the Slovak fell short of expectations time and again. Last year Kucera lost to Guillermo Canas in the semifinals here. This time, Kucera was on a roll, hitting the ball well and his groundstrokes had the depth. The 74th-ranked Kucera dispatched the top seed and defending champion Canas of Argentina in the quarterfinals, which saw the 28-year-old play some of his best tennis. "Everybody is asking me if I am back where I was five years ago (when he was in the top 10). But I am different now. My game is the same and it's all in the mind. My goal is to stay injury free and try and play my best tennis," he said.

Unlike Srichaphan, Kucera had tough matches initially. In the first tie, he fought hard to oust Justin Gimelstob of the U.S. 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 and then had to douse a hard-hitting Cecil Mamiit, also of the U.S. 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 6-3.

In the semifinals against the fourth seed Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina, Kucera seemed to be cruising along well, when the former put up a brief resistance in the second set. Twice Kucera was broken while serving for the match, and in each of those games Chela produced astonishing shots as he fought back from 1-5 to 5-5. Alarm bells were ringing for the Slovak, but he responded to the crisis like a true champion as he promptly finished his match 6-3, 7-5.

Srichaphan had an easy route to the final. He beat Jan Vanek of Czech Republic 7-5, 6-2 and then put it past Jan Van Lottum 6-2, 7-6 (7-4). He had a measure of Sargis Sargsian of Armenia 6-4, 6-4 and overpowered Frenchman Jean-Rene Lisnard, before crushing Kucera in the summit clash. The easy matches gave Srichaphan time to reflect on his game.

In fact, the much anticipated singles final turned out to be a one-sided affair. Pounding powerful groundstrokes and equally powerful serves, the Thai was simply all over Kucera. Added to Srichapan's attacking shots was a noisy section of the crowd. Down 3-5 in the first set, Kucera lost concentration and soon lost serve. Srichaphan then took control of things in the second set and raced to a 4-1 lead. Determined to wrap it up, he quickly changed to his lucky red T-shirt, and in no time closed out the match, that lasted 69 minutes, with a backhand down the line winner. Before receiving the Cup and the prize money of $52,000, he made sure he received the blessings from his father Chanachai Srichaphan.

Success breeds confidence and that's what has happened to Srichaphan in the past 12 months. The way he is playing now, his goal of reaching the top 10 seems very much possible. "I have been playing well all week. I am happy to win my third title on the ATP tour. Kucera is a great player but his returns were not up to the mark," reflected the Thai. "I have to give all credit to Paradorn. He is playing great. The crowd was a bit too noisy and I couldn't play my best," said Kucera. "May be I'll get used to it and win next year."

`The Scud' Mark Philippoussis of Australia was not at his best, with double faults and numerous unforced errors adding to his woes. Everything seemed fine when he arrived in Chennai. The fans who cried, "Come on Mark", were looking forward to his booming serves and thunderous groundstrokes. Having overcome three knee injuries, it looked like Philippoussis would start the New Year on a winning note. Coached by Peter McNamara, Philippoussis cruised through the first round. In the second, sixth seed Rainer Schuettler of Germany, coached by Derek Hordoff, a multi-millionaire (who also manages Canas) closed the doors on the Australian 6-2, 6-1.

The Aussie was quick to express his disappointment. "It's tough when you have not played in a long time. It is very frustrating. I was running like a headless chicken out there," said the man who came into this event not having played any tournament tennis since last year's U.S. Open where he aggravated a knee injury. "I would certainly love to come back," he added.

Not surprisingly, all the three Indians playing one after another on the centre court made quick exits in the first round. Coming in here after a season in which he hardly played any singles, other than the Davis Cup, wild card entrant Leander Paes put up a marvellous fight before going down to second seed Chela 7-6 (7-5), 7-5. Then, the top-ranked Indian in the world, Rohan Bopanna, succumbed after fighting hard against Croatia's Zeljko Krajan 4-6, 6-7 (3-7).

Well before the two matches, a teenager with a surname as big as Amritraj tested his skills against Jiri Vanek of Czech Republic. Nineteen-year-old Prakash, son of the legendary Vijay Amritraj, in his second ATP tour encounter, was no match as he lost 2-6, 2-6. It was in this scenario that the success of Srichaphan came as a breath of fresh air. The Thai sensation earned the tag of being the first Asian to win the Chennai event in singles in seven years.

More than the disappointment of the Indians losing in the first round in the singles, it was the split of the star duo of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, who had clinched three Grand Slam titles (and the Chennai event four times) that made the fans more disenchanted. Leander partnered David Rikl of Czech Republic while Mahesh paired up with doubles legend Todd Woodbridge.

Talking about legends, there were none who could be picked from the singles. But one from the famous Woodies pair — Todd Woodbridge — was there. The pair (Mark Woodforde and Woodbridge of Australia) signified doubles domination as complete as that of Pete Sampras and Steffi Graf in singles.

In the period between 1990 and 2000, Woodbridge and Woodforde won six Wimbledon titles (five in a row), one French Open and two Australian Open titles. While Woodforde has retired, Woodbridge is keen on winning some more titles. In fact, he has a few records to beat before he bids goodbye. Having clinched 74 doubles titles, his ambition is to overcome John McEnroe's 77, and Tom Okker's 78.

Having made a successful partnership with Woodforde, Woodbridge knows what it takes a pair to stick together and what it means to part ways, having gone through the stages himself. "It is a great shame that Leander and Mahesh have split. It is a shame for India. May be they were not winning enough tournaments together," he said.

Even the remaining hopes of Leander and Mahesh playing across the court did not materialise, when the second seeded pair of Leander and Rikl lost to last year's finalists Tomas Cibulec and Ota Fukarek of Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. The top-seeded duo of Mahesh and Woodbridge did not last long, losing to Frantisek Cermak and Leos Freidal of Czech Republic in the semifinals. So, the search for a new and a long-standing doubles partner continues for both Leander and Mahesh.

But for another pair, it was a wonderful journey in a city, which had been witness to some enthralling doubles show over the years. The little-known pair of Michael Kohlmann of Germany and Julian Knowles of Austria clinched its second doubles title with a 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (7-3) win over the Czech pair of Cermak and Freidal. "It's nice to be in a country which loves doubles," said Knowles. "After the success of Paes and Mahesh, we know how the whole country loves doubles. We hope to come back."

(As appeared in The Sportstar on January 25, 2003)