In keeping with the trend

NIRMAL SHEKAR

CHENNAI, DECEMBER 31, 2001: It is all happening at a basement conference room at the Taj Coromandel hotel on New Year's Eve. A troupe of local dancers hold stage putting on show some indigenous dance forms and they are joined by a pair of enthusiastic visiting tennis players.

-REUTERS

The Tata Group, sponsors of the Chennai ATP event, have been thoughtful enough to host a party for the visiting players and everybody seems to be having a wonderful time.

Suddenly, a middle-aged lady - a social butterfly from head to toe and the type that is born to spend half a lifetime in the cocktail circuit and the other half in a beauty parlour - taps me on the shoulder, points towards the door, and asks: "Is that a famous player? Who is that?"

As you turn around cautiously in a place where it is tough to glance sideways without knocking somebody's drink or someone else's plate, you see a wiry, young man with a body-hugging black T-shirt - something that showcases his washboard stomach - and jeans walking in, with a beautiful woman by his side.

"That's Sweden's No.1 tennis player. He is one of the favourites this week here," the lady is told.

"Well, I am sure it is not Stefan Edberg," says the lady with a champagne-induced chuckle. "There are hardly any recognisable names here."

MELBOURNE, JANUARY 27, 2002: Outside the Media Centre at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne Park on this Sunday afternoon, a group of journalists - Europeans, Indians, Japanese - who find it necessary to pump their system with a constant supply of nicotine to get through their day at work are in conversation less than an hour before the start of the men's singles final.

Suddenly heads turn as a pair of stunningly beautiful blondes make their way up the steps leading to the stands at the Rod Laver Arena. If they are not super-models, the world is not round, you say to yourself.

"You know what," says an excited lady sportswriter. "I was at the players' cafe a little while ago and these two and a bunch of others from the (Marat) Safin camp were busy making plans for tonight's big bash after he wins."

"Tonight? You must be kidding," says another colleague. "The party will begin pretty early. I don't think Marat is going to need more than three sets."

THIS MUCH is sure: If Thomas Johansson happens to play again in the Tata Open and lands up at a players' party at the end of this year, not even social butterflies with no more than a passing interest in the game would ask "Thomas Who?"

And, in the event of the 26-year-old Swede successfully making his way to the championship round of the 2003 Australian Open to try and defend his title, nobody in the rival camp would dare make any preparations for celebrations - even if Johansson happens to be playing Superman in tennis shorts, as many had believed Safin was this year.

-AFP

Sport not only takes on the contours of a fable when its Davids overcome the Goliaths with sling-shots but, more significantly, it makes for pulse-racing drama, the sort of riveting spectacle that fills the stadium and turns out to be a wonderful advertisement for its essential charms, something that no promoter at his imaginative best can hope to match.

And the world of tennis, over the last 13 months, has been witness to a gripping series of believe-it-or-not events, starting in January 2001 with Jennifer Capriati's fairytale ascent to the pinnacle at Melbourne and stretching through the English summer which saw Goran Ivanisevic, a wild card and 125-1 outsider, finally do justice to his great talents at Wimbledon.

But neither Capriati's soul-lifting resurrection as a champion of substance nor Goran Ivanisevic's stupendous success in one of the greatest Wimbledon finals of all time against Pat Rafter on an unforgettable "People's Monday," can be compared with what Johansson accomplished at Melbourne last fortnight.

As late as Capriati and Ivanisevic were in terms of their arrival as major league champions, these were players who, from their teens - and in the American's case from her pre-teen years - celebrated as superstars in the making, a potential Grand Slam champions.

But Johansson? At age 26, with just a pair of quarterfinal appearances in Grand Slams, possessed of as much charisma as you'd expect to find in a 50-something Swiss banker in times of recession, and sure in his own mind about his place in the world of tennis, Johansson might have hardly been a popular choice for the title of world beater.

After beating his good friend and countryman, Jonas Bjorkman, in the quarterfinals, Johansson embarked on a state-of-tennis-in-Sweden address at the post match conference.

Talking about how tennis had lost out to other sports in Sweden, Johansson was scathingly frank.

"Actually, look at me. I'm not that interesting. So, that's one key. If you colour your hair red and act a little bit different, then you are interesting, all of a sudden," said Johansson.

It was almost as if the man from Linkoping who makes his home in Monte Carlo was suggesting that Sweden needed a charismatic player to win something big to put tennis back on the centre-stage. And that, he knew, the player was not himself!

In the event, it was hardly surprising that Johansson admitted after his stunning four set defeat of Safin in the final that he surprised himself, more than anyone else, by his success.

"Yes, I never thought that I was going to be a Grand Slam winner. I mean, it is just unbelievable," said the Swede who lost to Paradorn Srichapan of Thailand in the quarterfinals of the Tata Open, less than four full weeks before lifting the trophy at Melbourne to join such Swedish giants as Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg in the Grand Slam honours roll.

Johansson himself would be the first to acknowledge that he is hardly in the same league as Borg and Edberg. And it is debatable whether the man who came into Melbourne as the sport's 18th best player would have lived out a dream during the fortnight if the draw had not opened up nicely for him in the bottom half.

In winning the title, the self-effacing Swede did not beat a single Top Ten player - even Safin is ranked outside the top 10, at No.11 - and it is difficult to say what would have been his fate had men such as Agassi, Kafelnikov, Kuerten and Henman been around during the second week.

But, then, as a professional a player can only be expected to play with the cards he is dealt and Johansson did that in great style, stepping up from the moment he faced Bjorkman across the net in the quarterfinals.

Then again, after struggling through the first half of the semifinal against Jiri Novak, before sneaking through in five sets, Johansson came up with the performance of his life in the title match against the giant Russian who went into the match as a prohibitive odds-on bookmakers' favourite.

Few players - even the ones in the top five - could have handled Safin's powerful serves the way Johansson did on that Sunday afternoon. Perhaps the only active player who could have done as well, if not better, was Andre Agassi. Safin got increasingly frustrated when he found out that everything that he threw at the Swede was coming back with interest, so to say.

This apart, Johansson served with courage and intelligence on the big points and won several crucial points with a backhand that made Safin's - the player generally believed to possess the best backhand in the game - look like a journeyman's self-defence weapon.

"He was overpowering me from the baseline. Which was very unusual for me," said Safin. "That somebody is playing much better backhand than me; that was bad. I never got a chance to come back."

The previous day, of course, none of us believed that Jennifer Capriati had the chance to come back. Playing her most confident tennis in three years at Melbourne, Martina Hingis, in her sixth consecutive Australian Open final, was up by a set and 4-0.

But, as it turned out, in a stunning turnaround - unprecedented in women's tennis in Grand Slam history - Hingis backed away a little and then Capriati fought with patented tenacity to stave off four matchpoints in the second set before winning in three to retain her title.

On the hottest day of the championships, once Capriati knotted up the match in the second set tiebreaker, Hingis wilted, mentally first and then, even more so physically.

"She was pretty close to getting revenge on me. Like last year, the same two sets, same scores. On those matchpoints I was really aggressive, and it paid off," said Capriati.

The opposite was true too, when you looked at it from the other side of the net. For, just when she seemed to have the match in her pocket, just when she needed to confidently go through the motions of the climax, Hingis stepped away. Surely nervous, she turned far too conservative.

"She just went for it. Sometimes you can't be passive at those points, but I was. I was like, 'Okay, hopefully she's going to make the mistake.' Next time I should take charge of it and try to do something myself. Today mentally and physically I wasn't up to it," said Hingis.

Then again, it has been quite some time now since Hingis managed to take charge in a Grand Slam final. Her last final victory at the majors came in January 1999 at Melbourne. More than three years have passed now and with each tournament it is going to become increasingly difficult to "take charge."

On the other hand, for Capriati, winner of two Slam titles last year and already off to a great start in the next season, winning has become a sort of habit now, as it does with all champions in their prime.

As poorly as Hingis played when it came to the crunch, few players would have fought as courageously as did Capriati in the second set of the final. Her success is all about belief - belief in her own capacity to bring off the impossible.

Indeed, Capriati did pull off Mission Impossible II this year to kick-start a splendid weekend of Grand Slam tennis which has stretched the sport's wonderful capacity for surprise into the new year.

The results (finals):

Men's singles: Thomas Johansson (Swe) bt Marat Safin (Rus) 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6(4).

Women's singles: Jennifer Capriati (USA) bt Martina Hingis (Sui) 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2.

Men's doubles: Mark Knowles (Bah) and Daniel Nestor (Can) bt Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro (Fra)

7-6 (4), 6-3.

Women's doubles: Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova (Rus) bt Daniela Hantuchova (Svk) and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (Esp) 6-2, 6-7(4), 6-1.

Mixed doubles: Kevin Ullyett (Zim) and Daniela Hantuchova bt Gaston Etlis and Paola Suarez (Arg) 6-3, 6-2.