Chennai Open: All set for action

Nine players in the top 50 in world rankings play in Chennai and this event is more than a tennis extravaganza. And if an Indian faces one of them (that can happen only in the second round), the experience for the local fans and the player will be worthy to savour as it will be rare.

When the match looked like a lost cause, Devvarman played powerful strokes from the baseline and conjured errors out of Ward to break him and level the set 3-3.   -  R. Ragu

An innocent bystander in the adjoining ‘School Road’ outside the S.D.A.T. Stadium in Nungambakkam will have little hope of realising an event of significance is being held nearby. The lane, shaded by trees, is quiet, devoid of the usual buzz of traffic and activity ubiquitous in the arterial roads of the city. In front of 50 people, Somdev Devvarman, once India’s No. 1 and ranked 62, took his position on Court 1 to face Britain’s James Ward.

But as the tightly-contested match warmed up to progress towards an exciting finish, people started filing in. Alongside former tennis stalwart Anand Amritraj and Indian player Sanam Singh, they cheered Devvarman to victory. There weren’t coarse or plebeian jeers, but genuine encouragement of a niche crowd, and this, it seemed, was the lifeline of the tournament.

For the event to create a louder buzz, two things are hoped for: participation of the best international players in the world, for people to catch stars in action, and a local player turning out to challenge the best here. Somdev did that in 2009, stunning two stars in Carlos Moya and Ivo Karlovic en route to finishing runner-up. But that turned out to be an anomaly, something Indian tennis fans keep hoping would change.

Important landmark

But the Chennai Open is serious business. The razzmatazz of off-season tennis tournaments in the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) and the Champions Tennis League (CTL) are captured by the arrival of top players in the world. But this one is an ATP 250 event, a limited but important landmark in the ATP calendar. Players participate to gain ATP points and warm up for the Australian Open. In football terms, it is like a league fixture as against playing a friendly. Therein lies its value.

So when nine players in the top 50 in world rankings play in Chennai, it is more than an extravaganza. And if an Indian faces one of them (that can happen only in the second round), the experience for the local fans and the player will be worthy to savour as it will be rare.

From gingerly taking baby steps, the tournament has run a mile to be in its 21st year in India. Due to the niche nature of the event, sponsorship has been difficult to come by, as has been confessed by the organisers. But if the tournament were to be culled – as the contract for it to run was till 2016 and a renewal of it is uncertain – it will be a loss of these rare moments.

Sunday, the second day of the qualifiers, also threw up exciting moments in the topsy-turvy match featuring Somdev, and got him into the main draw. He was sluggish in the first set, as Ward kept serving big and hitting powerful groundstrokes to undo him. After the set was lost tamely, Somdev failed to convert a crucial break point by Ward in the first game of the second set, and was himself broken in his service game to go 3-1 down.

Powering his way

His revival was characterised by a more attacking, active game, and an endeavour to come closer to the net. When the match looked like a lost cause, he played powerful strokes from the baseline and conjured errors out of Ward to break him and level the set 3-3. The tempo of his strokes rose, and diagonal shots to the lines were attempted. Moreover, drop shots were retrieved well, the best of them arriving in the seventh game of the second set, and Ward’s services were returned competently. Ward was broken in the 11th game for Somdev to take a 6-5 lead; it was followed by a service hold to tie the match 1-1.

Somdev ran through the third set in what he terms as the ‘momentum’ gained from the second, to win 2-6 7-5 6-4. He will play Andrey Rublev of Russia in the first round.

“I knew that he was playing really well. I needed to up my level a little bit. Make it a little tougher for him, try to get that first set out of my mind as fast as possible. It took halfway through the second set for that to happen. So, it was one of those matches where you had to claw your way back, fight hard. I’m happy I got one of those matches under my belt,” he said after the match.

“I needed to hold on to my serve, and I needed to find a way to break him. Early in the second set, he played a horrible game, and gave me a break point, (but) I didn’t break. I felt at that point that I had an opening. Once I broke in the second, I started serving a lot better. Got to 5-5, played a good game to break and served up the set really well. In the third, I rolled with the momentum of the second.”

Crowd approves

The crowd had also sensed this momentum shift. The hoot wasn’t deafening so as to trickle outside the venue, but was audible enough to signify its intent. In the coming days, there will be a lot more action to generate a buzz that, like today, is likely to be limited, but never absent. For the city, as Somdev has put it, ‘it is a great blessing’.

Men’s Qualifying Singles - Second Round:

Qualifying - [6] S. Devvarman (IND) d [2] J. Ward (GBR) 2-6 7-5 6-4

Qualifying - [3] T. Fabbiano (ITA) d [5] S. Myneni (IND) 6-4 6-2

Qualifying - [8] J. Kovalik (SVK) d [4] A. Kudryavtsev (RUS) 3-6 7-6(5) 6-1

Qualifying - [PR] A. Pavic (CRO) d [WC] N. Balaji (IND) 7-6(2) 7-6(0)

Matches on January 4:

N. Almagro (ESP) vs [Q] A. Pavic (CRO)

[8] B. Coric (CRO) vs M. Granollers (ESP)

[1] R. Klaasen (RSA) / R. Ram (USA) vs [PR] M. Bhupathi (IND) / G. Muller (LUX)

J. Millman (AUS) vs E. Donskoy (RUS)

P. Oswald (AUT) / A. Shamasdin (CAN) vs L. Rosol (CZE) / I. Zelenay (SVK)