2008: Gracious Youzhny

Youzhny pulled off the impossible in the Chennai Open final, defeating Nadal for the loss of only one game.

Victor and the vanquished... Mikhail Youzhny (left) who defeated Spaniard Rafael Nadal.   -  R. Ragu

The ATP event in Chennai has had its own way of making stars out of not so well-known players. In this regard, the names of Byron Black, Michal Tabara and Mikael Tillstrom among others quickly spring to mind. However, it’ll be unfair to include the newly-crowned Chennai Open singles champion, Mikhail Youzhny, in the above list. Seeded No. 4 in the tournament and ranked No. 14 in the world, the Russian does have the ability to defeat higher- ranked opponents. Yet Youzhny pulled off the impossible in the Chennai Open final, defeating Nadal for the loss of only one game. Youzhny was also gracious in victory. "Yesterday (Moya vs Nadal match) was the final. Today, Rafa was not like Rafa. I played not against Rafael Nadal. Rafa gifted the victory to me," he told Vijay Amritraj during the post-match on-court interview.

The flop show

How could Rafael Nadal play so poorly in the final that lasted only 54 minutes? The fans just couldn’t digest the fact that the top-seed and favourite got it all horribly wrong in the title round. He wasn’t quite the player known for his indefatigability and aggressive play. What were the real reasons for the Spaniard’s meek surrender? Was he apprehensive of suffering injuries before the Australian Open? Or was he tired after his protracted semifinal clash with Moya that lasted four hours?

After the final, Nadal came to the press conference in a light mood, eating an ice cream. “He played very well. I have no physical problem, but felt tired. No pain,” he said. “I don’t want to give excuses when I lose. I could have had a little more time to recover.”

Nadal and his protege

Nadal has a core team of coaches, physios and trainers accompanying him wherever he travels. But when he comes to Chennai, he has Bartolome Salva-Vidal, 21, for company while sparring. Vidal and the French Open champion reached the doubles final of the Chennai Open last year. But this time, the Spanish pair lost in the first round. Nadal sounded optimistic while taking of his protege Vidal. “I am seeing him since he was a kid. He is a very talented player. I am sure he will reach the top 100 in doubles soon (he is currently ranked 207).”

The Thai Twins

Watching the twins from Thailand, Sanchai and Sonchat Ratiwatana, an eight-year-old girl asserted, "They are (Paradorn) Srichaphan’s assistants. My mother told me this." Tennis in Thailand has been about Paradorn. But slowly and surely, the Ratiwatana brothers have come out of Paradorn’s shadow with a few noteworthy performances in doubles.

The Chennai Open triumph — the Ratiwatana brothers’ second ATP doubles title — should boost the confidence of Sanchai and Sonchat who are aiming to compete in the Beijing Olympics. "We will be concentrating on doubles till then," said Sanchat.

After their victory, Vijay Amritraj told the Ratiwatana brothers, "You always dress the same way, have the same hair cut. It’s very difficult to distinguish who is who." And one of them replied: "That way they (opponents) will get confused. That’s the key."

Dutch Delight

Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis , the second seed, bowed out to Robin Haase of the Netherlands 6-3, 6-4 in a first round match that had its share of drama. Baghdatis struggled, while the 20-year-old Dutchman impressed with his serves and drop shots. Serving for the set at 5-4, Baghdatis failed to convert four break points. Haase finally clinched the second set on his sixth match point.

“He’s a great player. Most of the time, when you play a great player, you also play great. I was lucky that he was not in good form,” Haase said after the match.

As for his favourite drop shots, which he used sparingly and intelligently, Haase said, “I am not sacred of using them at crucial points.”

Trying to be the best

The Lagardere Group is one of the biggest media and entertainment companies in France. The man behind the group is Arnaud Lagardere.

Of his numerous initiatives for the development of sport is Team Lagardere, which combines a training centre for promising and established sportspersons along with a centre for sports related scientific activities.

Here, around 10 of the best tennis players of the country, along with their coaches, train regularly at Jean Bouin Stadium, a stone’s throw away from Rolland Garros.

“By training together we share a lot of ideas, everybody gets to improve. We share videos also,” said Nicolas Copin, one of the coaches sporting a Team Lagardere T-shirt. “Lagardere wants to make France one of the best tennis teams in the world,” he added.

Nicolas Mahut, Michael Llodra, Thierry Ascione — all played in the Chennai Open — and France No. 1 Richard Gasquet are all part of Team Lagardere.

Seeking more support

Fernando Soler, the Tournament Director and Head of IMG Tennis Worldwide, wants the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association and the State Government to increase support for the ATP international series event. He praised the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu for its splendid work in maintaining the Stadium, but suggested the facilities be upgraded from time to time. "We want the event to stay in Chennai. The support from the people has been incredible. We have seen record crowds every year," he said. Soler also said that the Hawk-Eye facility is being considered for the 2009 edition.

(As appeared in The Sportstar on January 19, 2008)