A special bond

Roberto Bautista-Agut defeated World No. 6 Tomas Berdych in the quarters, but fell to Janko Tipsarevic in the final.-Pics: R.RAGU

The Spanish players’ romance with Chennai began in the summer of 1999 when Carlos Moya stepped out of the locker room at the SDAT Tennis Stadium and walked straight into the hearts of the fans, writes R. Narayanan.

Jumbo rides are royal affairs. Nothing symbolises the warmth the Spaniards are showered with, year after year at the Chennai Open, better than this.

The Spanish players’ romance with Chennai began in the summer of 1999 when Carlos Moya stepped out of the locker room at the SDAT Tennis Stadium and walked straight into the hearts of the fans. Moya became an instant celebrity with his handsome persona (he was voted as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world that year) and amazing racquet skills.

It was this crowd support that propelled him to another level while facing Rafael Nadal, 10 years his junior, in what is still regarded — and still talked about — as the best-ever match-up at the Chennai Open.

The two gladiators were involved in a classic battle (in 2008) that witnessed three tie-breaks, never-ending rallies and awe-inspiring tennis. When Nadal sunk to his knees in celebration after the Mallorcans’ marathon ended six minutes shy of four hours, the crowd stood up to salute the skill and stamina of the combatants.

Though Nadal had given it his all and had nothing left in the tank for the final against Russian Mikhail Youzhny the very next day, he and Moya had proved that Chennai brought the best out of them.

Mallorcan Marathon... Carlos Moya and Rafael Nadal fought close to four hours in the 2008 semifinals of the Chennai Open.-

It was only a leap year before that Moya had won his maiden title in the southern city, outlasting Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan in three tight sets. The year saw a mind-boggling 10 Spaniards in the 32-player draw, the awesome range including Nadal, David Ferrer, Tommy Robredo, Felix Mantilla and Fernando Verdasco.

Moya repeated the feat the next year after another titanic battle with Srichaphan. The Spaniard spontaneously showed his generous side when he donated the winner’s earnings of $52,000 for the tsunami relief operations. This gesture won him more admirers.

All along, King Carlos, too, seemed to love all the adulation that came his way. “I always look forward to coming to India, especially Chennai. It is just fantastic here,” was Moya’s reaction.

The Face of the Chennai Open for many years before bidding adieu to the tournament and eventually the game in 2010, the Spaniard received an emotional send-off after the first round defeat to Janko Tipsarevic in 2010 — the words ‘Chennai’s Favourite Son’ being embossed in a collage presented to him. It was more than just a symbolic act as it proved beyond doubt Moya’s popularity, as well as his fellow countrymen’s, in this part of the world.

Be it the World No. 10 Nicolas Almagro (2012) or the 56th-ranked Marcel Granollers (2009), there is something in the Chennai air that comforts the Spaniards and makes them feel at home. Both Almagro and Granollers went on to enjoy a fabulous year after reaching the semifinals at the event.

This year, it was the turn of the unheralded, unseeded Roberto Bautista-Agut to bask in the glorious Chennai sunshine. Bautista-Agut may have been the only Spaniard in the 28-player main draw, but what a formidable one-man army he turned out to be! Even the top seed and World No. 6, Tomas Berdych, had no answers to the probing questions posed by the 24-year-old Spaniard.

It eventually took an inspired Tipsarevic and his tryst with Chennai — the Serbian had lost a nail-biting finale to Canada’s Milos Raonic in 2012 and was determined to more than just “sniff the trophy” this time — to stop the giant-killing run of the six-foot tall Bautista-Agut in the summit clash. The special bond between the Spaniards and Chennai looks all set to grow, thanks to the tournament’s three-year extension and Bautista-Agut’s extended stay in this edition.