1999: Plenty of drama

In the singles the 'stars', Carlos Moya and Karol Kucera, failed to boom, taking some gloss away. In the event, Byron Black a honest, committed player from Zimbabwe, won only the second title of his career.

Byron Black with the trophy.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Life does seem wonderful. Two young men join hands, win several famous battles together, take the tennis 'doubles' world by storm. Then start troubled times, differences crop up, the two are on the verge of splitting. After much uncertainty, better sense prevails, they are together for another campaign at a place where it all began. Before a passionate home crowd, the duo emerges triumphant, firecrackers light up the night sky. A dramatic script, a perfect ending, the camaraderie is back. Once again life seems wonderful.

The Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi story in a nutshell. Partners, friends and heroes.

Well, it was in Chennai where Paes and Bhupathi clinched their first ATP Tour title two summers ago, and this year they made it a hat-trick of Gold Flake Open wins in the city of their destiny. After a traumatic last three months, their doubles partnership was on the road again. " We want to put everything behind us and want to look forward to the future," said Mahesh, Leander nodded. The future does hold many promises.

Generally, doubles in any Tour event is an 'add on/ yet this year, it was very much in focus with the popular Indian pair going for three-in-a-row; rumours of a rift between them before the event lent an element of drama to their efforts.

Four times in four matches they came back from the dead. The crowd willed them on, Leander and Mahesh did not let the home fans down. Still not playing at their best, they took flight one more time, against all odds. Yes, it is a symbiotic relationship.

In the singles the 'stars', Carlos Moya and Karol Kucera, failed to boom, taking some gloss away. In the event, Byron Black a honest, committed player from Zimbabwe, won only the second title of his career. The 30-year-old Byron may not be spectacular in his methods, but is the kind of guy who battles out every point as if his life depended on it. No easy pickings against this son of a tennis player from Harare for sure.

Black, adapting well to the heat and humidity of Chennai, proved a handful to his opponents — he did not concede a set till the final. In the summit clash, Rainer Schuttler, the fast rising German, did threaten to spoil Black's party, winning the second set, but went down in three. The Zimbabwean, who lost in the final of three Tour events in '98, did not stumble at the last hurdle this time.

He is one of the 'nice guys' on the Tour, the quintessential professional. "Tennis is hard business, I am pretty serious on the court," he said and his game reflects just that. He is competitive, but not abrasive, on court, friendly off it, and is respected by fellow players.

With blistering service returns and pinpoint forehand passes being his chief weapons, Black is quietly making his way up the rankings. He was ranked 28th at the end of last year, and should be in the top 20 soon.

The man Black, seeded fourth, defeated in the final, Schuttler is no stranger to India. The German reached the quarter-final of the first edition in Chennai and was here in '98 too.

Schuttler is someone who has made rapid progress since the beginning of this year. He scored a stunning ATP win in the Tour event in Doha, beating players of the calibre of Goran Ivanisevic and Tim Henman. After his fine run in Chennai, Schuttler should crack the top 50.

The feature of Schuttler's game is the power he packs into his groundstrokes. The backhand down-the-line is his favourite and he is the kind of player who can really turn on the heat when he finds his rhythm and range. Like in the second set of the final, when his sizzling passes left Black clueless.

The 23-year-old Schuttler, a big supporter of the football club Borussia Dortmund, belongs to the new generation of German players who want to come out of the shadow of Boris Becker and Michael Stich. "The expectations are very high and sometimes it is difficult." He was a young boy when he saw Becker triumph at Wimbledon for the first time... one of the reasons he took to tennis. Schuttler still has long journey ahead, but he seems to be making all the right moves.

The Die Hard man, Bruce Willis, is his favourite actor and judging from the manner in which Schuttler has battled it out on the court since the beginning of this year, he is a fighter till the end.

But, in Chennai, Schuttler had his share of luck too. His opponent in the quarter-final, top seed and World No. 2, Carlos Moya, developed blisters in his right hand and was forced to concede the match; the Spaniard could not even grip the racquet.

Yes, Moya, the handsome star from the little island of Mallorca in Spain, had a lot at stake going into this tournament — making the final would have given him back the No. 1 ranking.

Moya liked Chennai, hugely enjoyed the elephant ride organised for the players, and hoped to make it a winning weekend. The tall, wellbuilt Spaniard with long hair, and a smiling face was a big hit with the fans. Some of them were in tears when Moya was forced to make his exit. "It's a disappointing day. But I know how to handle this," revealed Moya.

Moya is a simple man with a simple outlook towards life. He loves life and does not let his tennis affect his lust for 'living.' His goal is to reclaim the No. 1 ranking — he was there for two weeks — though he is the first to agree that Pete Sampras is the greatest of them all.

Moya is a refreshingly different human being. Even after bowing out in a sad manner in the quarterfinals, he could actually laugh when a difficult question was put to him at the press conference. The kind of man who wears his heart on his sleeves.

One also saw glimpses of his unique shot-making ability in the closing stages of his second round match against Wayne Black. Normally someone who stays at the back of the court, Moya dominated at the net, catching his rival unawares. Among the claycourters from Spain, Moya is one of the few who can volley well. "I do not run away from any surface or challenge" says Moya.

Karol Kucera, the No. 2 seed from Slovakia, and ranked No. 10 on the ATP tour, too does not run away from any challenge. He was very young when he saw his country coming apart. In the communist regime, the young tennis hopefuls were given all the facilities and Kucera found it difficult to receive tennis coaching and equipment after the arrival of democracy. Tennis, which was a State-run sport, was suddenly beyond the reach of many from the middle-class background.

"Those days were difficult but I was lucky enough to find a sponsor." And he was lucky enough to run into Miloslav Mecir, 'The Big Cat.' And so well did the two get along, that they soon became the most popular 'Player-Coach' team in the world. Like Mecir, Kucera, appropriately named 'The Little Cat,' plays delicate, touch tennis.

A shy, sensitive person he has absolutely no airs about him. Kucera was struck by the friendliness of the Indian people. " They are like people back home."

Music is his other passion and when he has the time, he often tries his hand on guitar. "I am not that good you know," he said with a wink. U2 is his favourite group, and the number, Where The Streets Have No Name, has often served an inspiration to him.

Kucera moved into the big league when he beat Sampras in the '98 Australian Open, where he also advanced to the semi-final. And he came to Chennai in an upbeat mood, having played a leading role in knocking holder Sweden out of the Davis Cup. "It's a small, new country you know. These things mean a lot to the people. They were very happy. It was the best moment of my career."

The feature of Kucera's play is his brilliant touch — he does have soft hands — and deception — when in mood, he invariably wrong-foots the opponent.

He is fleet footed and can pack punch in his shots. Sadly, he was not at his best against a man who has always done well in Chennai — Mikael Tillstrom.

The Swede loves the city, quite natural for two of his best Tour results have come here; winning the event in '97 and making it to the final in '98. The crowds love him in Chennai and the 27-year-old man from Jonkoping is an extremely popular figure.

Tillstrom has a new girlfriend and a new coach, but could not embrace the same degree of success this time around. He did end Kucera's run but fell to the temperamental Dutchman John van Lottum.

Now Van Lottum is not a player who hides his emotions on a tennis court. He got into verbal duels, simulated machine gun fire at the chair umpire using his racquet, received a warning for code violation, but still managed to prevail over American Jonathan Stark, in one of those typically engrossing duels on the outside court, 7-6, 0-6, 7-6. His cracking forehand returns finally managed to turn the tide.

"It was the worst umpiring I had seen in a tennis match, but I like to show my feelings. I get charged, it helps my game," said Van Lottum later. He is hurt at the fact that the Dutch media had often ignored the efforts of lesser ranked players from the country. "They always write about Krajicek and Siemerink, the new guys want their identity."

Van Lottum, who roots for the Dutch football Club PSV Eindhoven, and enjoys driving fast cars, finished 99 in the year-end rankings and could move up further.

Byron Black destroyed him in the semi-final, but Van Lottum will carry with him happy memories of Chennai.

So would Peter Wessels, the serve and volleyer from Zwolle, Holland. Both, Van Lottum and Wessels, shared a room in Chennai and both made the semi-finals.

With a big serve and quick hands at the net, Wessels is a typical floater in the draw. He loves to finish points quickly but was involved in a long, gruelling three-setter against Sargis Sargsian of Armenia that finished in the early hours of Thursday. The Dutchman found things too hot against Schuttler though.

Wessels' passion for the game — he used to knock the ball for hours against the wall in his early years — meant that he made rapid strides at the junior level.

He reached the semi-finals of the junior events, in Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in '95, and is now beginning to make an impact on the Tour. He should be in the top hundred soon.

Among the players who were expected to have a good run, third seeded Thomas Johansson of Sweden was consumed by the humidity, and the talented Andrew Ilie of Australia was 'out of sorts' in his second round match against Vincenzo Santoparde of Italy. The stocky Ilie, a colourful character with his roots in Romania, made an amazing leap — from 473 to 59 — in rankings in '98. From Bucharest to Melbourne to the ATP Tour, it has been one long eventful ride for this Balkan. Watch out for him. He does hit a heavy ball and does have the ability.

Finally, back to the Leander-Mahesh triumph. In the quarterfinals, with the Indian pair down 3-6 in the third set tie-breaker, Mark Keil hit the forehand long with acres of space before him. Then, in the final, Wayne Black and Neville Godwin, seemed to go up a break in the final set, but after much dispute, a crucial 'line call' went in favour of the Indian pair. They did not look back. They were destined to triumph this time. As they say, fortune favours the brave.

The results:

Singles: Final: Byron Black beat Rainer Schuttler 6-4,1-6, 6-3.

Semi-finals: Byron Black beat John Van Lottum 6-1, 6-1; Rainer Schuttler beat Peter Wessels 6-1, 6-3.

Quarter-finals: Byron Black beat Richard Fromberg 6-4, 6-4; Rainer Schuttler beat Carlos Moya 6-1, 3-0 (Moya retired); John Van Lottum beat Mikael Tillstrom 4-6, 6-3, 6-2; Peter Wessels beat Vincenzo Santopadre 6-2, 6-4.

Doubles: final: Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi beat Wayne Black and Neville Godwin 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Semi-finals: Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi beat Mikael Tillstrom and Jens Knippschild 4-6, 6-3, 6-3; Wayne Black and Neville Godwin beat Jonathan Stark and Paul Goldstein 6-2, 6-1.

Quarter-finals: Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi beat Mark Keil and Andre Sa 6-1, 2-6, 7-6; Wayne Black and Neville Godwin beat Nitin Kirtane and Sandeep Kirtane 6-4, 6-2; Jens Knippschild and Mikael Tillstrom beat Geoff Grant and T.J. Middleton 6-4, 6-0; Jonathan Stark and Paul Goldstein beat Ota Fukarek and Tuomas Ketola 6-1, 6-4.

(As appeared in The Sportstar on April 24, 1999)