1997: Favourites fall by the wayside

Not many took notice of Tillstrom, and Radulescu, few asked for their autographs as they made their way quietly back to the players' lounge after sweating it out under the blazing sun.

Sweden's Mikael Tillstrom with the trophy.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Tillstrom, under the watchful eyes of his coach Hans Simonsson, was hitting endless balls on the outside court with his Swedish-mate Magnus Norman, a day before the start of the Gold Flake Open in Chennai.

For the pragmatic Swedes, practice is serious business and they talk little as they go about their job, with ruthless efficiency.

On the adjoining court, the Romanian-born German, Alex Radulescu, his cap turned back, his body glistening with sweat, was slugging it out with Rainer Schuttler.

The 22-year-old Radulescu was different, he shouted, he swore, he play-acted during his sessions. After all, he is a Balkan and the Balkans are passionate people, never ones to hide their emotions.

Not many took notice of Tillstrom, and Radulescu, few asked for their autographs as they made their way quietly back to the players' lounge after sweating it out under the blazing sun.

The pre-tournament publicity had cared little for them what with men like the reigning Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, runner-up MaliVai Washington, World No. 7 Thomas Enqvist and local hero Leander Paes in the fray.

In the end, these two very different men, with contrasting styles, would prove many wrong.

Indeed, what a week it turned out to be. Big names bit the dust and unsung heroes emerged from the shadows. There was a tense summit clash fought out by two highly motivated men, a dramatic finish, and a bit of cheer for India too at the end.

A week that was not all about superstars. The journeymen are the heart of the Tour and will be. The underdogs called the shots at Chennai.

How many would have predicted that Tillstrom and Radulescu, both talented, but not really heavyweights, would battle it out in the final, with the Swede winning after a dramatic twist. We will come to the riveting final later.

There was disappointment for India at the beginning with Leander Paes playing the worst match of his life since his early teens to lose to Argentine Gaston Etlis in the first round.

"It was like being in a bull ring," said Etlis, a fan of football club River Plate and Uruguayan star Enzo Francescoli.

Pat Cash, the Wimbledon champion of '87, revived memories of his halcyon days, serving and volleying with power and precision to pack Mahesh Bhupathi off in straight sets. "I am playing for pride, not really for money these days," said Cash, who rather amazingly is still on the tour, after suffering many career threatening injuries.

Ironically both Etlis and Cash lost in the second round, while Leander and Mahesh made amends in doubles.

Romanian Andrei Pavel, who outgunned Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek 7-5, 6-3 in the second round on the centre court, before an astonished audience, was easily the biggest sensation of the tournament.

"My grandmother to whom I was very attached died a couple of days back, and I played that match for my dead grandmother. I wanted to win the match for her," revealed Pavel, hovering around 130 in rankings, after knocking out the Dutchman.

Probably the long-haired Pavel, who spent most of his younger days in Constanta near the Black Sea, before heading for Germany, needed a cause to inspire himself.

"Krajicek also made the mistake of serving on my backhand, where I am strong," said the flamboyant Romanian who concedes his lifestyle is rather too wild and he "doesn't do what other tennis players normally do."

Pavel, who hits a heavy ball, took another seed, No. 7 Magnus Norman, in his stride, before finding Tillstrom's all-court game and passing shots too hot to handle in the semi-finals.

For the second seed and the defending champion, Thomas Enqvist, the tournament ended pretty fast when he withdrew in the first round against Schutller, a qualifier, complaining of nausea and illness with the scores level at 6-6 in the first set.

A mild wave of the hand to the chair umpire meant his campaign was over. His coach Jokhim Nystrom, a former World top five player, disclosed Enqvist had been complaining of some pain near his brow, and giddiness, that needed some medical attention. In fact, Enqvist was so sick that he flew back to Sweden instead of travelling to Tokyo for a Tour event.

The third seed Washington, bothered by a knee injury, never looked comfortable and struggled in the first round against the colourful Bulgarian Orlin Stanoytchev before pulling through 7-5, 6-7, 6-3.

"A couple of calls were real bad man," complained the handsome Stanoytchev, who is another of those Balkans who believe in living life to its fullest.

The American then lost the first set to the Oleg Ogorodov before fighting back to take the next two. Ogorodov, a hard-hitting player from Uzbekistan, later drew apart his hands wide and said "it was this much," about a couple of calls.

Incidentally, Ogorodov, who won a Challenger in Chennai not so long ago beating Paes in the final, is coached by the former Wimbledon finalist Alex Metreveli. "Conditions for tennis not so good during the Communist regime, now better," said Ogorodov.

Washington's win set up a fascinating quarterfinal clash with Radulescu. The American had saved match-points before prevailing in the Wimbledon quarter-final against Radulescu and the Balkan wanted revenge.

"The loss to Washington at Wimbledon didn't hit me at first. It was only when I woke up at midnight, sweating, that I realised what an opportunity I had lost. I could so easily have been in the Wimbledon semi-final," confessed Radulescu.

In the event, the grudge-match proved one-sided with Washinghton going down in straight sets, with the Romanian serving brilliantly.

"I had my little revenge, it takes a bit off my mind," said a smiling Radulescu, who is a very interesting character indeed. He was 14 when he left Bucharest to Germany for the sake of his tennis, just before the end of the Communist regime in that country.

"My parents made a lot of sacrifices for me. They never let me see the bad side of communism in my early days. Those were hard times. I longed for small things like a bottle of Coca-Cola. When I had my first bottle of Coke in Germany, it meant so much to me," said Radulescu, whose idol is the Romanian stylist Ille Nastase.

Apart from often sending down serves in excess of 200kmph, Radulescu also strikes the ball with power from back of the court and can come out with some delicate drop volleys too.

Radulescu then easily took care of the Frenchman Gerard Solves to make his first ATP tour final. But the 29-year-old Solves, born in Lagny, France, had already had his best run in an ATP tournament. "I will not forget Chennai easily," he said with a rather shy smile as he went to collect his prize money cheque.

Solves, who defeated Schuttler in the quarter-final between two unseeded players, had earlier beaten the eighth seed and countryman Lionel Roux in an emotional match on the outside court.

There were only a handful of people including the coach and the girlfriends of the players watching the contest, yet it was an intense affair, with the stakes high for both the journeymen. These are bread and butter players for whom the tour is a struggle and every match a battle.

Roux, trying desperately hard to break into the top fifty again, he was ranked 48 in '95, took the defeat hard, and sat transfixed in his chair staring at the empty night sky a good 45 minutes after the match was over. "They are all tough," he later said with a wry smile.

The 25-year old Tillstrom, seeded six, had to pull out all stops in his first round encounter against Tamer El Sawy of Egypt. Down 0-3 in the second set after losing the first, the Swede, who often clenched his fist after unleashing a passing shot, rallied brilliantly.

In the quarterfinal, he came up with some lovely stop volleys and some hot returns to quell the challenge of the big serving American, Jonathan Stark, seeded fourth, in straight sets.

Tillstrom's ground-strokes hit with a lot of top-spin proved too much for Pavel in the semi-final. "I just kept the ball in play, he was making a lot of unforced errors."

"Earlier, he wanted to hit winners all the time, finish things off too quickly, now he has steadied his game. He hits winners only when he knows he has a clear chance," disclosed Tillstrom's coach Simonsson, who won the French Open doubles title with Anders Jarryd, way back in '83.

"He is talented and he loves the big stage. He loves the big-match atmosphere and should be looking forward to the final," added the typically laid-back Swede.

So Radulescu vs Tillstrom it was in the end, but would the final without stars live up to its billing?

It was a good match up. If Radulescu had the bigger serve and hit a heavier ball, Tillstrom had the return and the passing shots on both flanks. In the event, the summit clash before a good Centre Court crowd, was a severe test of heart, skill and temperament and swung back and forth like an edge-of-the-seat thriller.

There was a lot of passion on display on that unforgettable evening at Chennai, where the fans were in a daze after the 136-minute gut-wrenching battle.

Indeed, there are times when you live twice. For a fleeting moment, Tillstorm thought he had lost his first ATP Tour final.

The linesman had signalled the ball out and it all seemed over for the Swede after a gruelling, energy-sapping tussle spread over three sets. Both the players had to endure fatigue and exhaustion due to heat and humidity.

At the other side of the net, Radulescu threw up his arms in joy. He had waited for this moment ever since turning professional in '92.

"I hate to lose in the final. I have made the final of three Challengers and won all three of them," he had said and here, he seemed to have triumphed in the fourth one also after making a stirring fight-back late in the second set.

The match meant a lot to him as this would have been his first ATP title. But he had celebrated a moment too soon.

Astonishingly, the Italian chair umpire, Romano Grillotti, over-ruled the call and Tillstrom had lived to fight again. On such slim threads do such success stories hang.

Radulesco was a shattered man. In his mind he had already won and could not motivate himself for one last time. Breaking his racquet after going through the motions in the last game of the contest, where he twice served underarm, reflected how he felt.

"In my mind I have won the title, but on paper he is the winner. I have never seen anything like it, the umpire over-ruling the call on matchpoint. I don't have the winner's cheque and the trophy but I won it."

The spunky Tillstorm, who had the trophy and the winner's cheque of 58,000 dollars was exhausted but elated. "I was cramping and feeling dizzy but the crowd made all the difference. It was an extraordinary match with so many drop shots. I will never forget the tournament. This has been the best week of my career."

It was the best week in the doubles career of Paes and Bhupathi too. The pressure really was on both of them to deliver after their early exit in the singles and the two responded brilliantly.

The Indian duo dispatched the spirited pair of Ogorodov and Eyal Ran in two tight sets before a wildly cheering home crowd to take their first ATP tour event title. Interestingly this was the first time Ogorodov and Ran had combined.

The Indian flags were flying high and patriotic shouts rent the air and there was that Davis Cup atmosphere.

After his shocking surrender in singles, Leander made it clear that he would fight every inch with Bhupathi in the doubles. The Indians did just that though their task was made considerably easier when they got a bye in the second round after the Enqvist-Tillstrom combination pulled out.

"The crowd was unbelievable. I am glad we played our best tennis today. The good thing is we are moving in the right direction," said a visibly pleased Leander.

The top-seeds Jonathan Stark and Rick Leach were upset by Ogorodov and Ran in the most gripping doubles clash of the tournament with the match going right down to the wire. Finally Ogorodov and Ran prevailed in the third-set tie-breaker after Leach had missed an easy overhead on match-point.

The IMG, the ATP and the TNTA, who combined to make the event a memorable one, deserve to be complimented. The tennis lovers of Chennai, the spiritual home of Indian tennis, a city that gave us the Krishnans, the Amritrajs, indeed had their fill. Perhaps the tournament's greatest triumph lay in the fact that despite the early exit of the stars it survived. There was a good crowd on the final day, some great tennis was witnessed and there was magic in the air. In the end, the game was the biggest winner.

The results:

Singles: Quarterfinals: Alex Radulescu (Ger) beat MaliVai Washington (USA) 6-3, 6-4; Mikael Tillstrom (Swe) beat Jonathan Stark (USA) 7-5, 6-3; Andrei Pavel (Rom) beat Magnus Norman (Swe) 6-0, 6-2; Gerard Solves (Fra) beat Rainer Schuttler (Ger) 6-4, 1-6, 6-2.

Semifinals: Tillstrom beat Pavel 6-3, 6-3; Radulescu beat Solves 6-3, 6-2.

Final: Tillstrom beat Radulescu 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.

Doubles quarterfinals: Jonathan Stark and Rick Leach beat Andrei Pavel and Tomas Nydahl 6-3, 7-5; Tamer El Sawy and Gabor Koves beat Kent Kinnear and Max Mirnyi 4-6, 7-5, 7-6; Oleg Ogorodov and Eyal Ran beat Pat Cash and Sander Groen 1-6, 7-5, 6-3; Paes and Bhupathi (walkover) Thomas Enqvist and Mikael Tillstrom.

Semifinals: Bhupathi and Paes beat El Sawy and Koves 7-6, 7-6; Ogorodov and Ran beat Stark and Leach 6-7, 6-4, 7-6.

Final: Paes and Bhupathi beat Ogorodov and Ran 7-6, 7-5.

(As appeared in The Sportstar on April 26, 1997)