Tata Open Notebook

Celebrities corner the attention

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

DECEMBER 30: "Time." There is a certain edge to the umpire's tone that reflects the general impatience among tennis fans here in Chennai.

Star attraction during the tennis event. From left: Guillermo Canas, actress Raveena Tandon, Vijay Amritraj and actor Madhavan teamed up for a noble cause, to support Child Relief and You (CRY). — Pic. M. Moorthy-

Granted, "Let the game begin" would sound more dramatic than the rather laconic "Time", but the city's tennis buffs aren't complaining. Nobody is thinking of the magazine of that name, or even Pink Floyd. All attention is focussed on the action at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium where India's only ATP fixture, the Tata Open, gets under way today.

Attempting to be innovative, the organisers have roped in cheerleaders this year, complete with pom-poms. Now that's something that most of us have only encountered in American movies before.

While one group of eight girls sits in the South Wing of the stadium and cheers one player loudly, another group eggs on his opponent from the West Wing. The girls, all between 16 and 20 years of age, had an audition for the job, and have made some pocket money from this.

But as Ishu, one of the girls puts it, "We are here for the fun, not the money." Another girl, Kayal says that the crowd has been co-operative, though some people ask them to "shut up."

"But we don't care, we're here to do a job and enjoy ourselves," says another enthusiastic cheerleader Beulah.

December 31: Nike will sponsor a three-day tennis clinic from January 3, to be conducted by Mose Navarra for 30 hand-picked talented juniors, in the practice courts adjoining the stadium. The blond Italian is, of course, better known in India as supermodel Sheetal Mallar's husband, than for any of his alleged tennis exploits.

The cheerleaders look slightly bemused today after Mahesh Bhupathi's wife, model Svetha Jaishankar, sitting in the player's South Wing box right in front of the girls, gives them an earful for supporting the Indian star's opponents in the doubles match and speaks most inspiringly on how they must support the home player. She refuses to accept the argument that the other cheerleader group is practically singing paens in Bhupathi's praise, and that their job entails supporting the opposition. Finally, the two cheerleader groups exchange positions.

January 1: A new day, a New Year. The past two days have seen a deluge of celebrities flowing into the stadium, and today is no different. This piece runs the veritable risk of degenerating into a Page 3 gossip column, but the players' box is virtually overcrowded today with the likes of Sheetal Mallar, looking sinfully gorgeous in ethnic wear; Svetha Jaishankar, Suchitra Pillai and the Krishnans: Ramanathan, son Ramesh and their families.

Paradorn Srichaphan, the second seed, is very popular and his half bow-half namaste after closing out today's match is greeted with loud applause. The affable Thai travels to tournaments with his father, who is also his coach. He says he likes Indian cuisine, but hasn't checked out Thai food in Chennai.

January 2: The crowd, sparse till today, seems to have suddenly swollen since 6 P.M.

But that probably has something to do with the much anticipated appearance of local chocolate boy celebrity Madhavan, and Bollywood star Raveena Tandon, trying hard to look appropriately sporty under all that make-up. They are here, as the cliche goes, for a good cause — in this case, to support Child Relief and You (CRY). The average viewer, though, might be pardoned for harbouring the notion that the stunning Ms. Tandon is here to perform one of her `item dance numbers', as opposed to playing in a charity tennis match.

Vijay Amritraj and Madhavan pair up against Tandon and "star player" Guillermo Canas, with funny man Cyrus Broacha in the umpire's chair. There's the usual theatrics, all in good humour, and, after an `absorbing' contest, Tandon and Canas win, credit for which must largely go to Broacha.

At the press conference, Tandon says she's been involved with CRY for nearly a year and waxes eloquent on how it's everyone's duty, famous or not, to do his or her bit for the underprivileged. Madhavan is a bit more candid and says he hasn't been involved in these matters as much as he would've liked to.

It's a trifle ironic to see film stars receiving more attention than the charity event itself, but in the long run it's obviously a symbiotic relationship.

January 3: A day to be remembered; not so much for the reason that Karol Kucera defeats top-seed Canas at the Tata Open, but because Steve Waugh scored a brilliant 29th Test century earlier today, equalling the Don's record and also passing 10000 Test runs in the process. A defiant innings, mocking the Aussie selectors, who refused to pick him for their World Cup squad. Conversation in the media room temporarily revolves around Waugh and tennis is momentarily relegated to the back-burner. Canas looks out-of-sorts and is possibly still reeling from the effects of playing yesterday alongside the talented Tandon — well, perhaps the epithet is not justified, strictly speaking; nevertheless it does make for a pretty alliteration...

The largely partisan crowd staggers in disbelief as it watches Kucera systematically demolish Canas with his touch play, barely applauding the former's brilliant cross-court passes, even as it eggs on a rusty Canas.

Last year's runner-up, Srichaphan, has a bunch of enthusiastic Thai supporters cheering him on from the stands. Their young bespectacled leader must have a sore throat with all the yelling and considering Srichaphan wins easily, the youth really ought to be conserving his vocal chords for later.

Paes loses a close quarter-final doubles match, which ends chances of an encounter with ex-partner Bhupathi in the final. The voyeur in us, admittedly, must have hoped to see evidence of the supposed rift between the former top-ranked doubles players.

January 4: Bhupathi and Woodbridge are blown off court in a one-sided game and suffer a shocking straight sets semi-final defeat.

Leander's father, the former Olympian Vece Paes drops by the Media Centre to catch up with some old friends. `Doc', as the former international hockey goalkeeper is known, deeply regrets that the Paes-Bhupathi combination split up due to personal reasons, and is of the opinion that if they had stuck around together for another few years, they would have made it to the ranks of the all-time greats.

January 5: Take a bow, Murphy. Of all the days to pick from, the scoreboard conks out on the day of the finals.

There is a huge line outside the stadium, waiting to get in, which is to be expected on any final day of an event. The highlight of the evening is of course, the singles match between Paradorn Srichaphan and Karol Kucera, but it's kind of an anti-climax, as `Thaiger' outplays the latter, who later says he was distracted by the noisy crowd. But Kucera also says it's one of the best organised tournaments on the ATP tour.

Is the victory here merely a prelude to still greater achievements for Paradorn?