Basking in the warmth of Chennai

NANDITA SRIDHAR

R. RAGU

CARLOS Moya has a secret he won't hit and tell. If sheer crowd support, crowd frenzy and court magic could win titles, then Goran Ivanisevic would have won four Wimbledon titles instead of one, and the British, Australians and the French would not be groping amidst hordes of Russians, Americans and the likes for members of their ilk to capture their own Grand Slam silverware. But the script slightly differs for a certain Carlos Moya Llompart, whose game reaches levels and speaks languages that he thought had gone on a vacation cruise after the 1998 French Open win.

However, the story of Carlos Moya in Chennai was never really meant to be ordinary. Ever since he came back after winning the title in 2004, it was love at every sight, each time he set his foot on the Chennai turf. There is a sense of magic and a feeling of connection, almost like it's Mallorca and not Madras. When he is on court, the atmosphere is, well, let's just say that Benjamin Franklin would have made some use of it. It's not merely a large group screaming in support; it's a sort of mania that engulfs the entire stadium, including kids who might not have grappled with the mysteries of A-B-C-D, but somehow squeal out a M-O-Y-A.

"It is just fantastic here. In Spain, football is the most popular sport and I do not get as much warmth there as I get here," said the Spaniard. In the 2006 edition of the Chennai Open, there were moments when Moya's killer forehand showed a bit of mercy on the man at the other end. But then, he would feed off all the energy from the crowd to produce a serve that would classify as a masterpiece. Whether it was Justin Gimelstob or Radek Stepanek, the weapons just came out of thin air when he was under severe pressure.

Even Moya seemed to get a whiff of the happening. He was much more animated than in the earlier editions, whether it was the anger or the jumping. It worked well, until he found himself on the other side of the Rock of Gibraltor, a.k.a Ivan Ljubicic in the final. He lost the first set, and a few people in the crowds were spotted yawning. It was business as usual. It had happened so many times before that they might have thought it to be a Spanish ritual. But the Croat did not care too much for rituals and romped home.

Was it the end of a fairytale? What on earth happened? What happened to the secret pact with the courts? The answer was pretty simple. The man was tired. Not because of the Croat, but thanks to his semifinal opponent Stepanek, who gave him a good warm-up for a 100m race, but not for a tennis match. This brought them to the next question. Will he come back?

"I come to any tournament more than once only because I like it. And I love this place," he said after the final loss.

The crowds can breathe easy. But if the organisers' target of getting in more top players is anything to go by, Moya's racket strings will have to weather a storm if he is to extend his run in the tournament. The signs are mixed at the moment. His forehand, though his biggest strength, just doesn't look as sharp as before. But the encouraging sign is his volleying. Unlike in the earlier days when he was diffident to charge the net, he has now found that it isn't so dangerous after all, and it shows his willingness to tread on erstwhile unknown territories.

Is it the first step in the Top-10 ladder?

"I kind of relaxed a little after the Davis Cup win (2004), and then the shoulder injury happened. I have to work on my motivation now to get back into the Top-10," he said.

Moya needn't worry about motivation. Thousands of people will be more than ready to provide him that.

Win or lose in 2007, the Carlos Moya magic doesn't look like fading away into an amateur bunch of tricks. Every time it looked like he would head home much before schedule, he would make sure that his stay was extended, almost like he was bound by a contract to the courts. But then, Carlos Moya has a secret he won't hit and tell.