2001: Even journeymen were cheered

In the end, tennis was the winner. No marquee names, no Indian interest, and yet there was a worthy turnout on the final day at the Nungambakkam Stadium to brighten up proceedings.

Michal Tabara with the trophy.   -  S. Mahinsha

In the end, tennis was the winner. No marquee names, no Indian interest, and yet there was a worthy turnout on the final day at the Nungambakkam Stadium to brighten up proceedings. This was the biggest feather in the cap of the 2001 Gold Flake Open, otherwise ravaged by the demolition of the seeds. Chennai is often referred to as the 'spiritual home of Indian tennis', and with good reasons too.

The semifinals witnessed four unseeded journeymen slugging it out and this tells us two things. Factors that may seem contradictory, but run parallel in the context of India's biggest tennis event.

Depth in the Men's Tour where every victory has to be earned... and the rustiness in some of the stars as they came in just after Christmas and New Year.

In the high octane world of professional tennis, things can be very slippery indeed for the fancied names at this time of the year, as they clearly have more to lose with hungry outsiders zeroing in.

In the event, has the shifting of the dates from April to early January really helped the tournament? Yes and No.

More top players are interested in the Chennai event with the Champion's Race and the New Ranking System in place, yet, quite a few of them are not quite into the groove as the tournament gets underway, resulting in a spate of upsets.

While there is no denying the fact that the people of Chennai rallied behind the tournament during the closing stages, it cannot be denied that Gold Flake 2001 lacked the sparkle, the passion — we are not talking about doubles here for the focus on an ATP Tour event has to be on singles one witnessed in the earlier editions when superstars like Boris Becker stepped on the Nungambakkam Stadium Centre Court.

Like in the previous years, there was no reigning Grand Slam champion though Cedric Pioline and Magnus Norman were both finalists in the Big Four and the effort to rope in the French Open winner, the popular Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, proved futile. It did take some gloss away.

Under the circumstances Swede Magnus Norman, the top-seed, was the star attraction, but he was outgunned by the big-serving wild card Taylor Dent in the first round. And that was only the beginning.

Soon, second-seed Argentine Franco Squillari, too was gone, scalped by the unheralded Russian Mikhail Youzhny, and the tournament wore a very open look.

Fourth-seed and the 1999 champion, Byron Black, was shown the door in the second round, and third-seed Cedric Pioline could not quite get his act together in the quarterflnals even as Michal Tabara, found his range in a 'Big Game.'

Add to all this the unfortunate exit of the defending champion Jerome Golmard in the second round — the Frenchman was leading in the first set when he conceded in his second round match and the tale of woes for the seeds is complete.

In the end, the 21-year-old Tabara from the Czech Republic wore a big smile, winning his first Tour event. The man from Napajedla is someone who has had to suffer under the shadows of his more illustrious counterparts.

"As a junior I was very good. Everybody wanted me to climb up in the rankings. This is the right time for me to win a tournament and aim higher."

Tabara's forehand is his strength and during the week, his winners on this flank coupled with his good court coverage saw him, though to his best moment yet on the Tour.

Not many were willing to give him credit for his upset win over Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the first round of the Gold Flake Open last year — many felt the Russian superstar had tanked; and the fact that Tabara made his exit in the second round did not help matters either.

This time though he did not leave anything unfinished even if not many were willing to believe that he could go all the way.

"I had waited for this moment for long, and am happy that I achieved it in Chennai, where the crowd has been very supportive," a visibly pleased Tabara, said after collecting a cheque of $54,000.

The Czech's moment in the tournament was when he eliminated Cedric Pioline with ridiculous ease 6-4, 6-1, striking winners past the 31-year-old Frenchman, who did appear jaded during the quarterfinals clash.

"I just couldn't play my natural game. I didn't get the right feel. He played very well. I was always struggling," revealed Pioline, who lost a gilt-edged opportunity to clinch his sixth career title.

It is this inability to finish things off in the climactic stages of tournaments that has stood between Pioline and more career titles, given his ability and experience.

For Russian Andrei Stoliarov, Tabara's opponent in the summit clash, it was an opportunity missed. Hailing from Sochi, a resort town in the former Communist nation, Stoliarov has been around on the Tour for five years now, and he's still waiting for his Breakthrough Year.

Stoliarov's highest race position in 2000 was 141, and he had never made it to the final on the ATP Tour. The stakes were thus high during the final between two players with dreams in their eyes.

The contest was however disappointing with Tabara calling the shots in the first set, conjuring up those telling forehands, that caught his opponent napping and then, holding his nerve in the tie-breaker after the Russian had failed to capitalise on a break of serve.

"He played really well, he was too solid. I was also very tired. My legs were heavy and I made some mistakes," confessed Stoliarov, who, however, had reasons to be pleased with his overall performance.

The 6-2, 7-6 (4) scoreline reflected that it was not a memorable final, but at least one person would have been terribly happy that the match was over sooner than later — Tabara.

Stoliarov earned a hard fought 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Peter Wessels, the serve and volleyer from the Netherlands, in the quarterfinals, even picking up the courage to venture to the net occasionally and win a few key points.

The other two semifinalists, Denmark's Kristian Pless and Tommy Robredo of Spain, played sparkling tennis for most part, with the latter in particular becoming the crowd favourite for his dashing ways on the tennis court and good looks.

Pless, producing attacking tennis, dismissed Romania's experienced Adrian Voinea 6-1. 7-5, but the former World junior champion, troubled by tendinitis in his right arm, had to pull out during the first set against Tabara in the semifinals.

"I am lucky, Pless is a good player, and he's been playing well. But this is not the way I would have wanted to reach the final," said Tabara.

And Robredo failed to seize the initiative after winning the first set 6-4, with Stoliarov, coming back strongly to take the next two 6-3, 6-4.

" I was tired in the third set and he was really moving well. Probably I should have attacked more. I have to learn to volley better." Apart from the volley, Robredo has some work to do on his backhand, which let him down at key moments.

The doubles witnessed the Black brothers, Byron and Wayne, being crowned. The two returned serve wonderfully well during the tournament and it was this aspect of their game that put so much pressure on the unlikely finalists Barry Cowan and Mose Navarra, the wild cards.

It was the first title for the brothers playing together and 'Big Brother' Byron was elated by the fact. "Dad will be happy tonight when he hears this news. He has always wanted us to win together." The 6-3, 6-4 scoreline illustrated the brothers' dominance in the final.

The fancied Indian pair of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi tasted their first defeat in Chennai. It was here that their stupendous run, that saw them clinch three successive titles — they won 12 matches on-the-trot; started in 1997, and the expectations were high.

There was a very different script this time as they bit the dust in the semi-final, with Cowan and Navarra clinching a dramatic encounter,where fortunes swung one way and then the other, 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, with the former in particular, unleashing some punishing returns during the crunch moments.

"There aren't too many heroes in India. We don't have the luxury of playing without pressure at home," said a disappointed Leander and he did have a point.

The results:

Singles: Final: Michal Tabara (Czech Republic) bt Andrei Stoliarov (Russia) 6-2, 7-6 (4).

Semifinals: Stoliarov bt Tommy Robredo (Spain) 4-6, 6-3, 6-4; Tabara bt Kristian Pless (Denmark) 4-0 (Pless conceded).

Quarterfinals: Tabara bt Cedric Pioline (France) 6-4, 6-1; Robredo bt Cyril Saulnier (France) 6-2, 6-1; Stoliarov bt Peter Wessels (Netherlands) 1-6, 6-3, 6-2; Pless bt Adrian Voinea (Romania) 6-1, 7-5.

Doubles: Final: Byron & Wayne Black (Zimbabwe) bt Barry Cowan (Great Britain) and Mose Navarra (Italy) 6-3, 6-4.

Semifinals: Byron & Wayne Black bt F. Cermak & O. Fukarek (Czech Republic) 6-3, 6-4; Cowan & Navarra bt Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi (India) 2-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4.

(As appeared in The Sportstar on January 20, 2001)