1998: Crowd response amazing

The top-seed, Patrick Rafter, carried the day. There were question marks about his fitness — he withdrew with a virus during the Davis Cup tie against Zimbabwe — and about his commitment. The Aussie settled all doubts in the end.

Patrick Rafter shrugged off a virus to post a memorable triumph.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Just 30 yards away there was an avalanche of emotions. Yet here, there was a stillness that was almost bizarre. The defending champion began his campaign in iront of not more than 10 spectators. Indeed, as Mikael Tillstrom was making short work of Oleg Ogorodov on the outside court with those sizzling passing shots, one could hear chants of 'Boris, Boris' emanating from the Stadium Court.

The Swede had a wry smile on his face even as he settled in his chair during the changeover. The cries from the court where Becker ruled were getting louder..

Patrick Rafter looked around as he made his way to play his first match in the country, and he seemed puzzled. People were actually leaving the Stadium after witnessing Boris Becker.

Here was one of the hottest names in tennis, the reigning U.S. Open champion and the world No. 4. The pretournament publicity had featured him widely but...

It is well nigh impossible to compete with a legend.

If sports is all about emotions, then the scenes at the Nungambakkam tennis stadium when Boris Becker held the centre-stage would rank a perfect 10. The crowd roared when he boomed, wept when he lost.

If sports is all about transcending barriers, the German would again score a perfect 10. Leander Paes might have faced the embarrassment of seeing the crowd rooting for Becker had the two clashed in the quarterfinals. There are certain things that go beyond patriotism.

"In my 20 years of covering tennis, I have never seen anything like this, not even in Grand Slams," confessed a tennis writer from Britain, Barry Wood.

But in the excitement it was forgotten that Becker was now only a part-time player, and the beautiful dream for the Chennai crowd ended when Gerard Solves, a journeyman, eliminated the German in the second round. Sanity returned.

The great German provided glimpses of his heyday, but fleeting ones; it was always on the cards that someone who played the game day in and day out would have the measure of Becker. Rather sadly, it happened.

To the German, India was a revelation. "Animals and human beings on the road. I mean I fear an accident every metre when we drive from the hotel to the Stadium. It is amazing how nothing happens. You do not get this in Europe."

The top-seed, Rafter, carried the day. There were question marks about his fitness — he withdrew with a virus during the Davis Cup tie against Zimbabwe — and about his commitment. The Aussie settled all doubts in the end.

Now, Rafter is very good for the game. He seldom loses his cool on the court, is patient with the press, and his face sports a genuine smile.

Prior to his Chennai triumph, Rafter had won just two events, including the U.S. Open, but had figured in seven finals on the Tour. Consistency rather than titles had seen him climb to the No. 2 ranking in the world at the end of '97.

In Chennai it was the humidity more than his opponents that bothered him. "In Australia it is dry heat. Here you sweat so much." As the tournament progressed, Rafter felt stronger and that was bad news for his adversaries.

The Aussie, who served and volleyed with precision, was in trouble only thrice in the championship.

Germany's Lars Burgsmuller, passed him relentlessly in the second set of the quarterfinals but like a true champion, Rafter lifted his game by a notch just at the right time in the third.

There was a pressure point in the semi-final too as Leander took the second set to the tie-break, but the Aussie came up with some aggressive tennis to wrap up the match. "The tie-breakers are the toss of a coin and I was hoping for heads," noted Rafter after the match.

In the final, Tillstrom led 4-1 in the second set, and even as the crowd was preparing itself for what seemed an inevitable third set, Rafter came up with some blistering stuff to weather the storm.

At the end of it all, the man's commitment to his nation's cause shone through. " Only a week earlier, I could not play for my country in the Davis Cup, and here I am winning a tournament. It pains me."

The long haired star from Mount Isa, Queensland, who comes from a big family — five brothers and three sisters — left India, a very happy man, "I like this city, the crowds have been fantastic."

The man whom Rafter defeated in the final has begun to like Chennai so much that he, "plans to buy a house,"here. Tillstrom won a dramatic final against Alex Radulescu last year, and this time around, he shrugged off the indifferent form coming into the tournament to have another very good run. Is it destiny?

It was a journey from the outside court to the Centre court for the friendly Swede, who had his father for inspiration. "I am his father and coach," said Bjorn Tillstrom.

Mikael Tillstrom, who made it to the quarter-final of the Australian Open in '95, has scalped the likes of Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Carlos Moya. Someone who can hit the lines with amazing consistency on his day, but as Rafter said: "He either plays very good or very bad."

It was mostly "very good" in Chennai with Tillstrom coming up with some special tennis to outplay the second seed Todd Woodbridge in the semi-final, passing the Aussie repeatedly on both flanks.

Tillstrom had come to Chennai straight from the Davis Cup tie against Slovakia. He couldn't play the reverse singles because of fever, and there were some doubts as to whether he would be able to recoup fast. The Swede set all doubts at rest.

The crowd was behind Tillstorm in the final. "I will come back and win it for sure," he declared after his first defeat in 10 singles matches in the Gold Flake Open.

Tillstrom's career has not really taken off in the manner it should have after his triumph in Chennai last year. The Swede moved up to 44 after winning his first Tour title, but is now ranked in the 90s. During the year he parted ways with his coach Hans Simonsson and was also bothered by a hamstring injury.

Will Tillstrom be in the top 30, his next goal, when he returns to the city of his destiny next year? His many fans in the city will keep their fingers crossed.

Chennai has played a vital part in Leander's career too. This is where he learnt his tennis, won his first Tour doubles title with Mahesh Bhupathi.

The Indian had to answer a lot of questions as he landed in the city How was his shoulder holding up after reports of a rotator cuff problem? Did he really have to skip the Davis Cup tie against Italy?

Leander on his part was not apologetic about missing the Davis Cup. "I have no regrets. The decision seems more right now. I have given more than 100 per cent for the Davis Cup, been injured in the process. I have to concentrate on my singles rankings too."

While it is true that Leander had spilled his guts out for India in the Davis Cup, it is also a fact that during times when he had not struck a winning combination in doubles, and was struggling to make a mark in the singles, it was Davis Cup that enabled him to stay in the spotlight, helped him find sponsors.

The shoulder injury seemed well behind him as Leander enjoyed his best Tour event in Chennai, making it to the semi-final in singles and clinching the doubles again with Mahesh. He won seven of his eight matches in six days, was pleased his body had stood the test. "If I can do it in these conditions, there is no 3 reason why I can't do it m anywhere else."

Frenchman Jerome Golmard stretched Leander in the second round before retiring with cramps and Solves, after the high of scalping Becker, went down in three sets to the Indian. Leander was in the semifinal of a Tour event for only the third time in his career after Shanghai and Newport. But Rafter, his semi-final opponent, belonged to a different league.

In doubles, Leander and Mahesh had a lot of points to defend as the winners and the duo fought with a tigerish resolve, winning four three-setters. Indeed, the atmosphere was very much like in a Davis Cup tie as the duo came up with some inspired tennis in crunch times.

Leander staved off two match-points on his serve during the semi-final against Barry Cowan and Filipio Veglio. The two Indians displayed plenty of aggro on the court... fist clenching, chest butting.

The dynamic duo also showed that it now had the experience to win close matches, quite the most important factor. And Leander and Mahesh are now closing in on the Woodies.

It was a pity the Woodies, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, crashed out in the quarter-final; it would have been fascinating to watch the World's top doubles team take on Leander and Mahesh in the summit clash. The fact that Woodforde had to play soon after a gruelling singles quarter-final encounter obviously took its toll.

The Woodies, like Rafter, are great ambassadors for the game. "We have been given a lot of respect in India for our accomplishments and it feels good," said Woodbridge.

"I think our greatest achievement is that we have put doubles into focus," revealed Woodforde, who, at 33, is a senior citizen on the Tour.

In singles, Woodbridge, a semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year, was undone as much by Tillstrom's brilliance as by the humidity. "I drank so much water that I felt legless."

Woodforde too had fallen to Tillstrom, in the quarterfinal. Woodbridge looked forward to having a crack at his doubles partner in the last four but the much anticipated clash never materialised.

Tennis was used for a great cause too. There was an auction of tennis memorabilia in support of The Banyan, a charitable trust. The Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, and Pat Rafter Collections, fetched a good sum.

Then there was Smash tennis for the kids sponsored by the Cartoon Network. The exercise was a huge success and proved very colourful.

On the court the city got to witness a legend, Becker, and some big names, Rafter, the Woodies.... it was a heady week indeed in a place that respects tennis.

The results:

Singles: Quarter-finals: Patrick Rafter beat Lars Burgsmuller 7-6, 0-6, 7-5; Leander Paes beat Gerard Solves 4-6, 6-3, 6-2; Mikael Tillstrom best Mark Woodforde 6-3, 2- 6, 7-6; Todd Woodbridge beat Andrei Pavel 6-4, 6-4.

Semi-finals: Rafter beat Paes 6-3, 7-6; Tillstrom beat Woodbridge 6-2, 6-2.

Final: Rafter beat Tillstrom 6-3, 6-4.

Doubles: Semi-finals: Oliver Delaitre and Max Mirnyi beat Arnaud Clement and Jerome Golmard 6-3, 6-2; Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi beat Barry Cowan and Filipio Veglio 2-6, 6-1, 7-6.

Final: Paes and Bhupathi beat Delaitre and Mirnyi 6-7, 6-3, 6-2.

(As appeared in The Sportstar on April 25, 1998)