Twenty years after its first edition gave Indian crowds a taste of supposedly top-flight tennis, the Chennai Open seems to be still searching for internal fulfilment. In over two decades a galaxy of stars has descended on the southern metropolis and, for most part, conducted battle with high intensity on the outdoor hardcourts of the SDAT Stadium. But by now any hope that such first-hand exposure would eventually inspire and yield a homegrown champion has evaporated.
And so, thousands of ‘discerning’ spectators — the kind who can prophesise the nature and degree of overspin from the position of a player’s wrist and grip — have turned up dutifully in the fast-dissipating expectation of seeing one of their own hold the winner’s trophy by the end of the week. Sadly for Indian tennis, that hasn’t yet happened, although the crown of hope has been progressively dislodged and replanted on newer, equally unrewarding heads, year after year.
On the eve of 2011, Somdev Devvarman, then 25 and showing no traces of the dodgy shoulder that would eventually come to ruin his career, sat in the upper stands on one of the outside courts, in a patch of shade provided by the canopy of an ancient neem just without the perimeter. He whistled tunelessly Dave Mathews Band’s ‘Funny The Way It Is’ (which, it must be said, is a crappy song) and an energy appeared to spring from him, which was understandable.
He was in the top 100, had made the Chennai Open final the previous year, in 2009, and was coming into this one on the back of gold medals in the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Devvarman was indisputably India’s best singles player, a counter-puncher who could hold his own in the predominantly hardcourt-centric universe of tennis.
He chatted at length about his college and training in the U.S. and how he was best buds with another rising star, Kei Nishikori. Two days later, he lost in straight sets in the opening round under lights on the show court, to unheralded Belgian David Goffin. Five years and an unreliable rotator-cuff later, the Indian is struggling to make the backend of the top 200, while Nishikori, particularly, and Goffin have moved into a different league altogether.
The returns of Yuki Bhambri, another Chennai regular, have been similarly unflattering. A junior World No. 1 and Australian Open champion, the fragile and injury prone Delhi boy has received a string of wildcards in Chennai, each time squandering them in an early round exit. Now palpably stronger and swifter, Bhambri is still only 23 and has time on his side, as does the current bearer of Indian hopes — Ramkumar Ramanathan.
Ramkumar, an out-and-out Chennai lad who turned 21 last month, was still in his teens when he was packed off to the Sanchez Casal Academy in Spain and has since been honing his skills on the gruelling Challenger circuit in Europe. He beat Devvarman in the first round in 2014 before a surprisingly large crowd — by Chennai measures — and lost in the quarterfinal in 2016, the last Indian standing.
The absence of local flavouring from the main course, however, has only whetted the tennis gourmand’s appetite. For those who trickle in before the weekend, the stadium has never been short on off-beat entertainment. Whether it is two-time winner Carlos Moya enjoying an elephant ride, Stan Wawrinka’s grand entrance in an autorickshaw or Boris Becker’s unhealthy preoccupation with a herd of cows — there is always enough happening. Becker, by the way, is a shoo-in for the best Chennai Open quote: “Everything’s happening on the roads,” he surveyed Nungambakkam from his Mercedes in 1998, “people eat, sleep, cook, fight. Cows too live on the roads”.
Then there was that epic semifinal, almost 10 years to the day since Becker’s astute observation, in which a young Nadal overcame Moya in three sapping tie-breakers. The quality of the field has improved incrementally over the years, with champions such as Marin Cilic, Janko Tipsarevic and Milos Raonic adding an extra dimension of power to the proceedings, but Chennai old timers maintain that the oscillating three-setter between the Spaniards is yet to be matched.
Most years a celebrity hit and giggle preceding the main matches has set up bizarre combinations on the court — Sunil Gavaskar pairing up with Sania Mirza, Leander Paes tutoring a pretty starlet on the finer points of the volley, Bhaichung Bhutia using his feet to slam a winner past Rohan Bopanna — and the crowd has lapped it up. Early-event attendance figures, though, have remained glaringly abysmal, as they have across 250 events around the world.
The tournament no doubt is a popular one, but reassurances on its future have never been easily forthcoming.
There have been private spats and public fallouts between organisers, at least three title sponsorship changes, and contentions that this year (whichever the year in question) would certainly be the tournament’s last. Chennai Open has seen it all and survived it all. Here’s hoping it exists until it witnesses an Indian champion, which is more or less saying that it last unto eternity.
(As appeared in The Sportstar on January 23, 2016)
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