2005: Moya's reign continues

For many, it boiled down to backing an Asian over a European a superfluous extension of patriotism, as it were; while for a few, it was about cautiously supporting the odds-on favourite or brashly rooting for the underdog.

Carlos Moya, the champion.   -  R. Ragu

A sizeable proportion of the crowd arriving at the Nungambakkam Stadium for the Chennai Open final appeared undecided about whom to support, that lazy Sunday evening.

For many, it boiled down to backing an Asian over a European a superfluous extension of patriotism, as it were; while for a few, it was about cautiously supporting the odds-on favourite or brashly rooting for the underdog.

For Mademoiselle Coquette, hooting lustily from behind the players' box, it was only a matter of time before she would attract the attention of the sullenly handsome Spaniard prowling the length of the baseline. For the elegantly attired social butterflies in the stands, it wasn't so much about the players dashing around on court as it was about preening in their seats, stiff as a vodka neat, and passing judgment on the sartorial tastes of the bourgeoisie.

For the discerning tennis fan (inevitably a minority social group anywhere, as far as head counts go) irrespective of political affiliations, it was mostly about the breathless drop-shots and stinging passes.

As it went, after playing the most exhilarating tennis right through the ATP week Paradorn Srichaphan could come only this close to winning the final.

After a scare in his first round match against Christophe Rochus, the second-seed had waltzed into the championship round and, for the first two sets, completely dominated world number five Carlos Moya. Srichaphan finished 2004 as the world number 27 disappointing, considering he'd managed to peak at number nine in May the previous year. The Thai might not be number one material, but he certainly has the game to make the top 10 and more relevantly, entrench himself in the position like a stubborn bureaucrat.

Srichaphan has been working with a new coach of late the former American pro, T.J. Middleton although he clarified his father would remain his primary support system. "Working with a new coach is a new experience, brings in fresh opinions and modifications to technique," the Thai said. "My dad is still my coach. He'll travel with me to Australia and other big tournaments. I've been with my dad for 10-15 years, since the time I was a junior. He is a great father, a great coach. It was my dad who got me into the top ten at one point, so there is nothing much to say about it."

Here Srichaphan had the momentum going for him, with one half of the crowd cheering from the sidelines; and you thought he would have to play atrociously from this point onward to lose particularly since the top-seed and defending champion Carlos Moya didn't look anywhere near his best.

The Spaniard was ranked world number one for a brief period, in 1999. But after sustaining a career-threatening injury after the US Open that year he hasn't quite looked the same, although he did win three tournaments last year and beat Andy Roddick to help his country clinch the Davis Cup.

Srichaphan seemed to have the measure of his opponent during the final. Pounding winners from every imaginable corner of the hardcourt grid, the big-built Asian led 5-2 in the third set and came within two points of sealing his second win here in four finals.

Then, he blew it.

Moya won four consecutive games and then earned a couple of matchpoints on Srichaphan's serve, before the exhausted Thai managed to stretch the match to a third set tie-break, which ended 7-5 in the Spaniard's favour an eerie repeat of last year's final that again involved the same players. During the last few games Moya's supporters seemed to come alive all of a sudden, and it almost seemed as if he was riding their collective will on his way to victory.

It must be said that the final, although gripping, was no classic; and finished as nothing more than a desperate scuffle. It's always unfortunate when the result hinges on a final set tie-break: the winner is only a puff of dust ahead, yet almost unfairly the loser is relegated to the footnotes.

Moya's performance, although lacklustre for the most part, bore out the views of A.S. Sridhar one of those discerning fans, who were expecting Moya to win.

"Moya is a real fighter, he's like a Spanish bull. He's got a great forehand, but it looks a little rusty. Still, I'm supporting him today; I'm sure the match will go the distance," Sridhar had said, although at that stage Srichaphan was leading 2-0 in the second set after winning the first.

The 52 year-old, who has watched the tennis here for five years now, commented that it was good to see Srichaphan in the final. "He's made the final here for the fourth time, but I think he's an exception, as far as Asians go. Our Indian players aren't really doing as well as we would like to believe; it's mostly hype."

Prakash Amritraj, he commented, had a big serve (Amritraj, incidentally, recorded the fastest serve during the tournament). "But he doesn't seem to have his father's ability," Sridhar shrugged. As for the rest of the Indians, Sridhar believes they lack the frame to challenge the top players.

"Rastogi played very well against Jonas Bjorkman, but he just doesn't have the power at the moment," said Sridhar. "He's probably the great new hope but that's not saying much, is it?"

Vijay Amritraj, Prakash's father (and, of course, also one of India's finest ever tennis players) agrees that Rastogi needs to work on his physique and stamina.

"For his age, Karan is mature mentally. But he needs to work on the physical aspect. Indians and Asians, in general, have to overcome the inherent genetic traits that are loaded against them. But we can take heart from the fact that the world number one isn't particularly well-built."

Admittedly though, Roger Federer has a little more natural talent, and plays just a little better than the Indians. This, Amritraj attributes partly to the superior work ethic in Europe and America.

"Also, since my time, players overseas have improved way quicker than Indians. But that is somewhat offset by the sudden spurt in opportunities available to our players," he said. "We had to travel all over to participate in some decent tournaments. The current lot get to play against foreign players right here.

"Prakash and Harsh Mankad, and to a lesser extent, Karan, have played in a lot of tournaments abroad; there's nothing like gaining international exposure, pitting yourself against the best."

Amritraj feels that his son, Prakash, has the potential to break into the top-100. "He's worked a lot on his fitness over the past year or so, I can vouch for the quality of his work ethic; it's world class. His best years are ahead. I'm confident he'll make it to the top-100 in the next couple of years," he said.

Prakash's case is open to debate. But the fact remains that no Indian made even the second round in singles this year, although Harsh Mankad lost to Kevin Kim narrowly after making it through the qualifying stages. The crowd, you suspect, is in attendance primarily to gape at the stars. Nobody really cares who wins certainly not as long as Indians keep losing in the qualifying rounds.

Sridhar watched the Mankad match. "Mankad played well, but he's too old now," he said.

The tennis aside, a lot of players came together to support relief work in the wake of the recent natural disaster that struck the continent. Many donated a significant part of their prize money towards the cause.

"If the tournament had been scheduled for a week earlier, we obviously couldn't have gone ahead," said Ravi Krishnan, Managing Director of IMG-India, which runs the Chennai Open. "At least now, we've had the opportunity to make a financial contribution to the victims of the terrible tsunami tragedy. We hope we can make a difference qualititatively as well."

(As appeared in The Sportstar on January 22, 2005)