Canas, an excellent competitor

CHENNAI boasts of the best stadium in the country, great weather at this time of the year and a crowd that knows its tennis. These are ideal requirements for a world class tennis event. And the city has witnessed some of the top pros over the last five years. But at the end of 2000, there was some question as to whether the tournament would stay on in Chennai. The agreement with the existing sponsor had run its course and the economic slowdown raised doubts about the ability of another corporate entity to take up the event. We are happy that the tournament renamed the TATA Open remains here.

The event is positioned as a useful tune-up for those heading out to Australia for the first Grand Slam event of the year. The playing conditions are similar to those Down Under and the change from the previous dates in April means that the weather is a lot more manageable. Also, it gives the players who are coming off a year-end break, much needed competition to build on their confidence.

As in the past years, the bulk of the entries were from Europe. There were no big names from the top ten pool for marquee value, but then, the past years showed that big names don't always deliver. In fact, the top seed had not survived the first round in the previous two editions. This trend coupled with maybe a more restricted budget, pushed the organisers to a less top-heavy, more balanced field of players. A lot of the pre-tournament hype was missing, maybe because the TATAs had finalised the deal only a few months ago.

The European presence in the singles draw ended on the penultimate day. The ones who remained were the top seeded Argentinian, Guillermo Canas and an Asian, Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand. Srichaphan was not even on the original entry list and was not planning on being here. A last minute withdrawal found the Thai making his way to Chennai, (His first round match had to be held over till Tuesday to give him time to get into the city) and into his first final in an ATP Tour event.

It was not as if his road to the final was easy. He powered on, scalping a few big names, running through Max Mirinyi (one of the pre tournament favourites) and Andrei Stoliarov (last year' s finalist) in straight sets. Then, in the quarter and semi-final, he put out seeded players, Thomas Johansson and Andrei Pavel. His was truly the Cinderella story of the tournament.

At 22 years old, he is bound to get better and should be the Asian flag-bearer in the years to come. But along with all this success will come adulation and greater expectations at home. It is to be seen how well he can handle this.

Guillermo Canas gave a perfect display of what being a professional is all about. He was coming off his best season in 2001 and is on the verge of breaking into the top 10. South Americans, by and large, get to be type-cast as claycourters but Canas showed he could adapt to various situations. He has had good results on all surfaces and most importantly, is an excellent competitor.

His opponents during the week found out that there are no cheap points from him. Canas covers the court extremely well, better than the rest of the players in this tournament. All this makes him very difficult to beat. But in order to break into the higher levels, he might have to add some power to his game.

Unseeded Karol Kucera was another player who left his mark in the tournament. He had been ranked in the top 10 not so long ago but injuries have prevented him from playing his best tennis. After an indifferent year in 2001, he was eager to recapture his old form. Kucera took a step in that direction as he reached the semi-final. He beat third seed Fabrice Santoro in a marathon quarter-final and lost the next day in another close match to Canas. These were the two best matches of the week.

Funnily enough, the top seed and the last player in the draw fought it out for the title. And there was not a whole lot of difference between the two. Srichaphan's inexperience in big matches tilted the contest in Canas' favour. It gives us an indication of the competitive nature of men's tennis.

We Indians cut a very sorry figure at the TATA Open singles. Both Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were in the main draw, courtesy wild cards. And there were a host of others in the qualifying. And between all of them, what we could manage was one meagre set. This is very bad news as far as tennis in our country is concerned.

After all this gloom, it was imperative that Leander and Mahesh did well in doubles. They of course were the top seeds but started off against a couple of in-form singles players, Thomas Johansson and Andrei Pavel. They got through in a close three set match. Thereafter, after a default in the quarter-final, they scored back to back victories against Czech teams who were seeded. Their doubles matches on Saturday and Sunday proved to be the saving grace for the tournament. They were both highly entertaining matches and packed the stadium in the weekend.

All week long, the attendance had been very sparse. I don't know whether it was due to the absence of top names or the fact that there wasn't sufficient time to promote the event. I also feel that some of the amenities at the stadium can be upgraded to make spectating more of a pleasurable experience. I am sad to see the spectator in India being taken for granted.