2012: A veritable feast

Despite poor turnouts, the tournament still had its characters, drama and essentially good tennis, to make it a memorable one.

Milos Raonic with the Chennai Open trophy in 2012.   -  PTI

Familiarity doesn't necessarily, as a rule, always foster contempt. In reality, people do find reassurance in repetition of rituals, the mind mollified by a sense of belonging. But timelessness is a quality that hinges, in equal measure, on the gifts of legacy and contemporary relevance besides a vision for the future.

The Aircel Chennai Open (earlier christened Gold Flake Open and Tata Open), in its 16th year, is of relatively recent vintage but has established an emotive connection with the city's tennis diehards. This feeling of kinship has its substratum in the divergent attractions of the tournament. This year's edition was a spread, no doubt scrumptious, but devoid of that indescribable additive which provides the aura of pre-eminence.

The protagonists

The highlight of any sporting competition is, without exception, its participants. In the past, the tournament bore witness to some phenomenal exponents of the game. Patrick Rafter, Carlos Moya, Rafael Nadal, Paradorn Srichapan, and Thomas Enquist are names that can be rattled off without visits to Wikipedia pages.

When fourth-seeded Canadian Milos Raonic let out a war-cry after a 193-minute long scrum with Janko Tipsarevic, the crowd joined the 21-year-old in his celebration in the way it has done for every champion in the past. The tournament's reputation of being a trampoline for emerging stars found renewed validation.

Two-time champion Marin Cilic's withdrawal ahead of the event with a patellar tendon injury was an early blow but the presence of other regulars and promising youngsters redeemed the situation. Holder Stanislas Wawrinka, top-seed Tipsarevic, and Nicolas Almagro were the marquee names in this year's draw. The Indian flavour was spiced up by veterans Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, and Rohan Bopanna. Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri, and Vishnu Vardhan brought to the table the effervescence of youth.

While Somdev pulled out with a recurring right shoulder injury, wildcard entrants Bhambri and Vishnu gave rousing performances. In a new association with Tipsarevic, Paes was his usual passion-propelled self. Paes and Tipsarevic seized the doubles title with panache. The other fresh partnership, between Bhupathi and Bopanna, fizzled out in the last four, though.

Unheralded players had a good time too, as Belgian David Goffin showed in his shock demolition of countryman Xavier Malisse. Japan's Go Soeda matched the best performance by a qualifier (Kristian Pless, 2001) at the tournament by making the semifinals.

C.B.N. Reddy, Honorary Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association, and member, organising committee of the tournament, felt the quality of tennis was outstanding. “The quality of tennis has been outstanding with two players in the top 10 (ATP World Tour rankings) taking part. The Indian players did very well. Vishnu Vardhan showed with his performance that he is an exciting prospect for the Davis Cup. There have been some excellent matches even on the outside courts.”

Cliches and frank-speak

Press conferences, almost unfailingly, throw up dreary situations thanks to the rigmarole of monotonous queries and tired answers. Some players, nevertheless, jazz up such sessions with their distinct quirks. As Tipsarevic was addressing the media after his doubles final victory, a feeble voice from the back-row fired this question: “What do you think about Leander's poor service game?”


As the puzzled Serbian struggled to find an answer, Paes popped out with a wicked grin. The usually sombre hacks roared in laughter with Tipsarevic for company.

Bhupathi was quite a contrast to his colourful former partner; his responses barely grossed five words. Questions which ran to several lines were met with snappy responses. “Yeah we played well” was the 37-year-old's staple response in most interactions.

There were others such as eventual finalists Raonic and Tipsarevic who expressed themselves with candour and passion. Elaborate answers, rich in clarity and content, were frequently served up by the duo. The scribes — usually hard to please — weren't complaining. The rest of the cast included the omnipresent PR machinery and the overzealous security guards.

The crowd

The audience response was tepid, especially in comparison to the years before. Many reasons were pointed out but the dwindling numbers on weekdays did cause concern. Mr. Reddy said as much: “There was a crowd of 2,000 people each on the first and second day and 2,500 on the third. The numbers have been down by around 1,000 people a day as compared to the last couple of years.”

Rain was also a dampener, quite literally. “It rained on Thursday and Friday in the week preceding the event and the forecast suggested rains. Such uncertainty did play a part in the poor sales. Last year actors Surya and Vivek Oberoi were roped in by the sponsors on the first day. That helped attract crowds. This time they couldn't make it as they had other commitments.”

The final, though, was marked by a raucous crowd. “With a cracker of a singles final and the presence of Leander (Paes) in the doubles event, very few tickets remained unsold. In fact, hardly 300 tickets were available for the final. The hardcore supporters have not gone away; they have offered amazing support throughout the tournament.”

(As appeared in The Sportstar on January 19, 2012)

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