21 years of memories - the end of an era

Every time the SDAT Stadium is seen through a car window, a yearning nostalgia for the best of times that was Chennai Open will take over.

The chest-bump, patented by Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, formed good memories of Indian success at the Chennai Open.   -  R. Ragu

For a sports-crazy school kid, the arrival of the Gold Flake Open (later known as Aircel Chennai Open) was a dream come true. The tournament was the marquee affair of the year - a chance to watch superstar tennis players in the flesh. Young and old would meet at the SDAT Tennis Stadium (also known simply as 'Nungambakkam Stadium'), to watch world-class action.

The build up to the event, which was initially held during the school summer vacation months, was filled with suspense. News flew thick and fast about the household names who are set to compete. A best friend, whose well-connected father played weekend tennis at Madras Cricket Club, heard from his mate that Pete Sampras was a sure prospect.

Another friend, the son of a top Gold Flake official, was certain that Andre Agassi had signed a lucrative appearance deal. While most rumours turned out to be untrue, it did considerably add to the buzz around the championship.

When the stars did turn up, they were welcomed as heroes. Thomas Enqvist, the winner of the inaugural 1996 edition (held at New Delhi), was the first to make an emotional connect with the public. The strikingly-handsome Swede, with a chiseled jawline and laidback swagger, was a hit with the boys and girls alike. Several impressionable youngsters tried to copy his perfect, suave hairstyle, but to little or no avail.

Byron Black, who lost to Enqvist in the final that year, was lauded for giving his all on the court, even if his game lacked flair. Black received huge praise when he went all the way in 1999. What a relief it was to see the workhorse finally cross the finish line in first place.

Enqvist, meanwhile, continued to remain a fan favourite, but could never again manage to recreate his dream run.

Paradorn Srichaphan won over the crowd with his 'Vanakkam'.   -  R. Ragu

 

Yet another Swede, Mikael Tillstrom, then a top-40 player, conquered the arena in 1997. His was a strange case. In seasons to come, Tillstrom’s form suffered greatly, which saw him drop out of the upper echelons of the world-ranking. But come the Chennai summer, he was back at his very best. Speculators took pride in mentioning that Tillstrom cared only for their event, and that other tournaments - Grand Slams included - meant precious little to him. Much like Wimbledon home hope Tim Henman, Tillstrom captured the public’s imagination by making stirring runs, only to trip over in the last few laps.

Becker in dosa land

Look who's here - the king of Wimbledon, the German god, Boris Becker.

Countless hours of watching him in full flow on television, and now Becker has booked a room at the neighbouring Park Sheraton hotel, eating masala dosas and 'thayir' vadas. Oh, what a feeling to have this stalwart in our midst.

His time on the court, however, left a lot to be desired. A second-round upset at the hands of unheralded Frenchman Gerard Solves came as a rude shock. Becker seemed to do a Nick Kyrgios during the course of his 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 loss. The legend didn’t seem to give it his best in the latter stages of the encounter, leaving those present at the venue bitterly disappointed. Did the humidity do Becker in? Or perhaps the fight in him died after a lifetime of toil on the pro circuit…

Carlos Moya's love affair with Chennai Open continued for many years.   -  R. Ragu

 

After Becker made his unceremonious exit, all eyes turned to Australian Patrick Rafter. The genial, polite giant entered as the reigning U.S. Open champion. Opponents soon felt the full brunt of his snarling, venomous kick-serve. Game after game went his way, as his fluent service motion allowed the ball to shoot up disconcertingly from a good length (this is Chennai after all, a cricket analogy is never far away). Rivals just could not get a return back in play, allowing Rafter to waltz his way to the 1998 title.

Tamizhan Srichaphan

2003 winner and three-time finalist Paradorn Srichaphan was adopted as Chennai’s son. The talented strokemaker was from Thailand, but fans erased geographical boundaries and embraced him as their own. Here was a humble Asian man sticking it to the European and American heavyweights. That he frequently used the very Indian ‘Vanakkam’ greeting - hands joined, head bowed - endeared him to the locals that much more. Ah yes, Paradorn Srichaphan was as much a Tamizhan as Prasanna Sricharan.

 

No player was worshipped more than Srichaphan’s arch-rival, Carlos Moya. The tall, muscular Spaniard, with that long, flowing mane, was the first player to make a conscious effort to engage fans. Moya would spend hours signing autographs and posing for pictures, and made several public appearances to entertain the masses. His bond with the city started in 1999, when Moya - then the World No.1 - was taken on an elephant ride by the organisers. He thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and his love affair with Chennai continued for years to come.

The Indian interest, meanwhile, was ruled by the doubles combination of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. The duo announced their arrival by winning the tournament in 1997. The chest bumps and rallying cries - a new phenomenon at the time - were imitated with nationalistic fervour in the stands. Bhupathi's big serves and powerful double-handed backhand, coupled with Paes' mesmerising agility and touch at the net, there could no stopping them from world domination. Father time, however, would see them veer off in opposing directions.

As time wore on, the schoolboy - now a young adult - had moved on to other interests. The likes of Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Ivan Ljubicic and Marin Cilic graced the stage, but tennis was shunted down the priority list. To use a sports cliche, it was time for youngsters to take over the mantle of ultimate tennis fan.

The tournament may have shifted out of Chennai, but the memories will remain. Every time the SDAT Stadium is seen through a car window, a yearning nostalgia will take over. It was the best of times.

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