2004: Moya stops a fighting Srichaphan

His is a glamorous face in the glitzy world of international tennis — a visage that could make many a young heart flutter.

Carlos Moya receives the trophy.   -  M. Moorthy

His is a glamorous face in the glitzy world of international tennis — a visage that could make many a young heart flutter. Carlos Moya, the blonde Spaniard, stole the imagination of the young and old alike with his racquet skills and drop-dead looks in the 2004 Tata Open tennis championship in Chennai. The tattoo of a dolphin on his right (bulging) bicep also added to the glamour value of the Spaniard, who recently acted in a guest role in the Spanish film Torrente II. In May 1999, he was selected by People Magazine in U. S. as one of its "50 Most Beautiful People in the World."

The top seed came to Chennai in 1999 as world number one, but conceded his quarterfinal match due to finger injury, much to the disappointment of his fans. He was here in 2003 as well but yet again a wrist injury forced him out of the event.

Of course, there were no murmurs of injuries, no whispers of poor form this time. Strong double-fisted backhand returns, an attacking forehand coupled with a potent serve, averaging in the 190 kms enabled the 27-year-old Moya to clinch the title, after a thrilling final against Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand, the second seed.

Once Moya survived a tough second round match against American Paul Goldstein (Moya faced a match point in the second set tiebreaker) he emerged stronger. One point amply showed the fighting spirit of the Spaniard. Down 6-7 in the second set tie-breaker, the American Goldstein was one step away from making the biggest upset of the championship. Goldstein threw Moya out of range with a deep approach volley. When the crowd thought that it was all over for the Spaniard, came the shot of the match. A backhand down-the-line went past the outstretched racquet of Goldstein, and the script changed. "Matches like this give you confidence," Moya said later.

Emerging stronger, Moya shunted out the challenge of Frenchman Thierry Ascione, no easy challenger, and the dangerous Dutchman Sjeng Schalken in the semifinals. Against a redoubtable Paradorn Srichaphan in the summit clash, Moya produced something special at crucial points to clinch his 15th ATP career title. "I played the important points very aggressively. Once the match goes into the tiebreaker anything can happen. But it was an advantage for me and I knew I had a chance to win. It is good to start the year with a win. It is difficult to start playing well in the first week of the year but I have improved with each match," said Moya, who was trailing 3-5 in the final set tie-breaker.

Since winning his first ATP title in 1995 at Buenos Aires, Moya has seen several ups and downs. Claiming his first Grand Slam title— The French Open— in 1998 and briefly holding the No.1 position in 1999, Moya realised how tough it was staying at the top as injuries started to take its toll. Playing in the 1999 U. S. Open second round, he retired complaining of back injury and was forced to miss tournaments till the early part of 2000. Soon, he was back to full fitness and won his first ATP title at Estoril after the Roland Garros win. Moya returned to the game's elite, winning four ATP titles in six finals, the Tennis Masters Series win at Cincinnatti being the notable among them.

Last year too was pretty good for Moya as he won three ATP titles, but Grand Slams continue to elude him. He is eager to change that, and true to his intentions, has begun the year in style winning his first ATP title of the year in Chennai. He is on course.

Started playing tennis at the age of six with his father, Moya has matured into a fine all-court player and has, to a large extent, removed the misconception that Spaniards as a tribe are basically clay-court specialists (he reached the Australian Open final in 1997). Moya gives an impression of being a laidback player, but the opposite is true. During the time when he was down with injury, Moya found solace in scuba diving, French and guitar. He left Monaco in 2000 to settle in Geneva where he can soak up the peace and quiet on the shores of Lake Geneva and take advantage of the reasonable taxation. He does his bit for charity too. A slogan for Moya's cologne advertisement aptly sums up his philosophy, "Life is the most exciting game."

Srichaphan cannot lay claim to such luxuries. Brought up by a doting father and coach Chanachai according to Asian values, Srichaphan has grown under the watchful eyes of his father. He was forced to give a go-by to his `desires' (he recently broke up with girlfriend Tata Young, a popular actress and singer in Thailand). If at all anybody requires credit for Srichaphan's achievements, it is Chanachai, who quit a bank job to train his three sons. Sitting quietly in the stands during his Srichaphan's matches, he has been a strong influence on his son, and continues to remain so. "I don't really go to the clubs when I'm away from home, because I'm staying in a hotel room with my dad. Well, there's nothing like a little father-son bonding over pay-per-view. The support of my family is the best thing in my life. I never feel that I lost any of my childhood. I have always had the best," Srichaphan had said once.

Mainly by virtue of being an Asian, Srichaphan has captured the hearts of Indians. The 2k-generation, who are not used to see an Indian rise to the top 20 in the singles in a short span of time, has started admiring the 24-year-old Thai. Since making his entry to the Tata Open in 2002 as an alternate, Srichaphan has risen quickly and has endeared himself to the crowd. Reaching the final of the Tata Open for the third consecutive time, he was on the verge of making history at the ATP Open as the first player to retain the title, before Moya put paid to such hopes.

Srichaphan has earned the name of being a nice guy making waves on a gruelling tour. Ever to do the `Namaste' gesture whether win or lose, Srichaphan has received admiration from one and all. Like Moya, Srichaphan seldom loses his temper. When he becomes angry, he expresses his frustrations by gently hitting the ball with his foot.

In front of the packed Nungambakkam Stadium in Chennai, Srichaphan had his chances as he led 5-3 in the final set tie-breaker before Moya pulled up his socks. He played like a champion. "It was a good match and both of us played well. I am not disappointed. I am happy to have played the final after saving six match points yesterday (against Tommy Robredo in the semifinal).

"The last time I played Moya I lost in straight sets. This time I have done much better. I broke him twice in the second set and I was leading 5-3 in the tie-breaker and had a chance but no one can tell in a tie-breaker," said Srichaphan. A match between the top two seeds is a Tournament Director's dream and it came true on that Sunday when crowd came in droves to see two top-class players compete.

Srichaphan nurses a dream of winning the Grand Slam. "Reaching the second week would be ideal and from then on I would like to take it one match at a time," he said.

While Srichaphan has hopes of winning a Grand Slam, Moya is keen to dispel the notion he is a one-Slam wonder. Both have everything going for them — mass appeal, excellent all-court game and total dedication. Will 2004 realise the ambitions of these gentlemen players?

(As appeared in The Sportstar on January 31, 2004)