An Open sans buzz

More than anything, what the Chennai Open missed sorely was the presence of a player of the stature of Stanislas Wawrinka to create the right amount of buzz, writes Anjana Senthil.

R. Ragu

Roberto Bautista Agut, the Chennai Open winner.   -  R. Ragu

S. R. Raghunathan

Rohan Bopanna (right) and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan took the doubles title.   -  S. R. Raghunathan

If one were to make an objective, mathematical assessment of this year’s line-up for the Chennai Open, it wouldn’t make for a bad reading. You had a Grand Slam champion (Marin Cilic), ranked World No. 6; you had five Top 50 players and a great number of Indians, in singles and doubles, in the mix.

But what the tournament — in its 21st year — missed sorely was the presence of a player of the stature of Stanislas Wawrinka to create the right amount of buzz. The Swiss, a winner here the last three years, came out of the shadows of his illustrious compatriot, Roger Federer, to win the 2016 U.S. Open, his third major following victories at the Australian Open (2014) and the French Open (2015). The very mention of his name would have been enough to draw in crowds by the hordes, but Wawrinka has grown beyond the Chennai Open.

Getting Marin Cilic over was a steal no doubt. His past performances at the Chennai Open (winner in 2009 and 2010), his 2014 U.S. Open triumph and his exploits over the last year (he won the Cincinnati Masters, scored victories against Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka) meant, in Cilic the organisers had the much-needed sales pitch for an ‘exciting tournament’.

So, when the Croat made a shocking first round exit, losing to the Slovakian qualifier, Jozef Kovalik, the Chennai Open, already suffering an identity crisis, was dealt the biggest blow. On the same day, in doubles, Leander Paes and his Brazilian partner Andre Sa stumbled out in the first round. This was something the organisers had not bargained for, especially after the major retirement talks that had preceded the tournament (Somdev Devvarman announced his retirement, while Leander Paes had dabbled with the idea of doing so).

Ramkumar Ramanathan was another name that the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association — under whose aegis the ATP event is held — was banking on to rekindle the interest among fans and draw in more spectators to the tournament. A quarterfinal appearance the previous year and a creditable performance in the Davis Cup had only increased the local player’s popularity among the partisan crowd. However, another Indian, Yuki Bhambri, put paid to the spectators’ hopes by handing Ramkumar a humiliating defeat in the first round.

The draw was unkind to India’s No. 1 Saketh Myneni as well, as he bowed out to Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny in the first round.

But to be fair, it wasn’t all grey and gloomy at the Chennai Open. A new champion emerged. Roberto Bautista Agut swept away the challenge of Russia’s Daniil Medvedev to clinch the Chennai Open title in his fifth attempt. He had come close to climbing the summit in 2013, when he reached his maiden ATP tour final. Four years later, against a 20-year-old Russian, who had made it to his first ever ATP final, the 28-year-old Spaniard prevailed. Bautista Agut, thus, improved his ranking by one place to become World No. 13. The NextGen Russian star climbed up 34 places to be ranked World No. 64.

Youzhny, the 34-year-old Russian veteran, featured in the best singles match of the tournament, against the eventual champion Bautista Agut. Youzhny, the champion here in 2008, seemed to have pinned the second seed to the floor with a lead of 6-2, 4-1 in the quarterfinals before Bautista Agut performed the Houdini act. The incredible victory gave Bautista Agut the confidence and belief to go the distance.

The Indian tennis aficionados did show their patronage to the only ATP Tour event in the country. While they did not pack the stadium to brim even for the final, there were always enough enthusiastic fans to keep the players in high spirits, their chants altering every moment to support the player who was winning the good points, or the underdog who needed some form of encouragement when the chips were down.

In this regard, Frenchman Benoit Paire was an anomaly, though. He was able to get the crowd behind him for an entire match even if he played against an Indian, as Yuki Bhambri found out in the pre-quarterfinals. The crafty Frenchman played delectable drop shots during the course of the tournament, but it was his racquet-throwing and temper-flaring on-court histrionics that appealed better to the crowd.

In what turned out to be an historic all India final in the doubles, Rohan Bopanna and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan defeated Divij Sharan and Purav Raja. Jeevan, the Chennai boy, became the toast of the city while Bopanna made up for his title-less 2016 with a win in the new year. The roars of support for the ‘South Indian’ team against the most settled Indian pair of Sharan-Raja helped the tournament hit the high note at the finish.

Another biggest gain for the Indian tennis was the performance of Yuki Bhambri. Coming in after a long layoff due to elbow injury, he fought off higher-ranked players in the qualifiers before crushing Ramkumar to enter the pre-quarters. He showed he could compete against the best by giving Paire, ranked World No. 47, a tough fight before bowing out of the competition. He has gained a whopping 93 places to be ranked No. 381. Yuki has it in him to regain his position as India’s No. 1, provided he stays injury-free.