Chennai gears up for another blockbuster event

Stan Wawrinka’s decision to give the Chennai Open a miss was undoubtedly a big blow for the organisers, but they recovered soon enough to rope in the services of Chennai’s old favourite, Marin Cilic, who is enjoying a career-high No. 6 ranking in the world.

Marin Cilic

Croatian Marin Cilic will be the biggest attraction of Chennai Open.   -  AP

Nestled alongside the Qatar Open and the Brisbane International, it is remarkable how the Chennai Open has stood its ground in the most sought after spot as a season opener in the ATP circuit. If one city lures the best by offering eye-popping prize money for an ATP 250 event, the other has geographical advantage going for it. What has kept the Chennai Open thriving, for 22 years now, is its reputation to keep attracting big names to play and endorse the tournament year after year. The likes of Pat Rafter, Carlos Moya, Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka have made their pit stops here before and during their mercurial rise to tennis stardom.

The 2017 edition of the Chennai Open, scheduled for January 2 to 8, will not see the Swiss, Wawrinka, making his customary, and usually successful, start to the year at the SDAT Stadium in Nungambakkam. After eight successive appearances, which yielded four titles, the World No. 4 decided to shake things up in his routine by opting to head to Brisbane instead.

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The announcement came soon after he captured the U.S. Open title. After three successive wins in Chennai, which coincided with the years of his three Grand Slam wins, the 31-year-old yearned for new challenges in his quest to be World No. 1. Choosing Brisbane, with Nadal, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic in attendance, was a logical move.

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Wawrinka’s decision was undoubtedly a big blow for the organisers, but they recovered soon enough to rope in the services of Chennai’s old favourite, Marin Cilic, who is enjoying a career-high No. 6 ranking in the world, thanks to his Cincinnati Masters title. The 2014 U.S. Open champion and two-time former Chennai Open winner will be making a comeback after a three-year gap. “I started my ATP career in Chennai with the qualifying way back in 2007 and had two wins, in 2009 and 2010. It’s always a beautiful memory for me and I am hoping I can win in 2017, so that I can continue my great journey there,” he said.

While Croatian Cilic will be the biggest attraction, the field doesn’t lack in quality with former top 10 player — Mikhail Youzhny of Russia — confirming his participation.

Youzhny, 34, and other regulars like World No. 14 Roberto Bautista Agut (Spain), No. 27 Albert Ramos-Vinolas (Spain) and No. 47 Benoit Paire (France) have enough pedigree to keep the contest in balance.

Indian players

If there is one thing that gets the crowd excited, apart from the presence of Grand Slam winners, it is the sight of promising players from India. The excitement and partisan attitude hits a crescendo if there is home-bred talent and Chennai lad and India No. 2 Ramkumar Ramanathan perfectly fits that role. He, along with the new India No. 1 Saketh Myneni, will take charge of the Indian campaign in the country’s only premier ATP Tour event.

Ramkumar has enjoyed a decent run in the Chennai Open, reaching the quarterfinals last year, but is quick to admit he needs to improve. “It was an ordinary year for me. I had a rough time playing Challengers after the Chennai Open, so I decided to play more Futures tournaments to get some confidence back,” he said.

The 22-year-old is coming into the tournament on the back of winning two back-to-back ITF Futures titles in Qatar, but is guarded in his expectations. “I just want to go out there and enjoy. I will stay aggressive and play the kind of tennis I always play and see what happens,” he said.

Saketh Myneni, ranked 192 in the world, made it to the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time in the U.S. Open this year and is looking to make it to the main draw more consistently in the upcoming season. The Chennai Open is a welcome opportunity in that regard. “It feels great to get a wildcard for the singles as well as the doubles event. It will be a great experience to play in Chennai, it is the place where I began my professional career,” Saketh, who is travelling to Chennai just a week after his marriage, said.

Players to look out for

Croatian Borna Coric has been named among the NextGen stars expected to take over the reins from the ‘Big Four’. A Davis Cup final for Croatia, runner-up in ATP 250 tournaments in Chennai and Morocco and a quarterfinal loss at the Cincinnati Masters to eventual winner Marin Cilic reads well in the profile of a 20-year-old.

Norwegian Casper Ruud, 18, is the youngest player in the field this year. Ruud started 2016 as a Junior No. 1 and in his first ever Challenger event in Sevilla, Spain, he walked away a winner.

The 2017 Chennai Open may be just be the place to propel the duo’s career.

Doubles

Saketh and Ramkumar have also been granted a doubles wildcard. The other wildcard has been given to the pair of N. Sriram Balaji and national champion Vishnu Vardhan. Rohan Bopanna and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan will lead India’s challenge as seventh seeds, while Purav Raja and Divij Sharan have also gained direct entry.

India’s 18-time Grand Slam winner Leander Paes will be India’s biggest attraction in doubles and has been seeded third with Brazilian partner Andre Sa.