Chennai Open: A new Czech star on the horizon

Linda Fruhvirtova, a 17-year-old from the Czech Republic, emerged as the champion by playing a power-packed game and at the same time showed enough tactical nous and patience to outsmart and outlast more pedigreed opponents.

Superb form: “Definitely winning Grand Slams is where I want to be one day in my career. This is what I’m working for, to be the best in what I do,” says young Linda Fruhvirtova, who won the Chennai Open title.

Superb form: “Definitely winning Grand Slams is where I want to be one day in my career. This is what I’m working for, to be the best in what I do,” says young Linda Fruhvirtova, who won the Chennai Open title. | Photo Credit: R. RAVINDRAN

Linda Fruhvirtova, a 17-year-old from the Czech Republic, emerged as the champion by playing a power-packed game and at the same time showed enough tactical nous and patience to outsmart and outlast more pedigreed opponents.

Tour-level tennis’s recent history in Chennai is replete with examples of excellence from the young and fledgling who have since gone on to become global superstars. From Daniil Medvedev to Casper Ruud to Karen Khachanov to Andrey Rublev, all have competed in the Tamil Nadu capital before becoming household names across the world.

Over the last fortnight, Linda Fruhvirtova, a 17-year-old from the Czech Republic, gave enough hints that she will be the next to join that list, claiming her maiden Tour-level title at the recently concluded WTA Chennai Open. She emerged as the champion by playing a power-packed game and at the same time showed enough tactical nous and patience to outsmart and outlast more pedigreed opponents.

“I’m still pretty young to set a goal like top-50, top-60,” said Fruhvirtova, who rose to a career-best ranking of 74 after the triumph.

“I’m kind of developing physically, mentally in my game. My main goal was to improve as much as I can. This was my first full year on the tour. Just to get more experience and get more matches. But yeah, Grand Slam main draw is where all the players want to be. I qualified for the U.S. Open main draw so why not be there next year as well?”

Illustrious list

Fruhvirtova, the youngest from her nation to win a Tour title since Nicole Vaidisova (2006, Strasbourg), seems next in line in an illustrious list of Czech players who have revolutionised the sport back home. There are as many as eight Czechs in the women’s top-100, including two Grand Slam champions in Petra Kvitova and Barbora Krejcikova.

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The latter, in fact, is a more accomplished doubles player, having won the career Golden Slam (all four Majors and the Olympic Gold medal) in the last 18 months in the company of Katerina Siniakova. The Czech team has also clinched the Billie Jean King Cup six times since 2011. For a nation with a population of just over 10.5 million, these are astonishing returns.

“Tennis is a big tradition in Czech Republic,” said Fruhvirtova, who hails from a country that has produced legends like Hana Mandlikova and Jana Novotna, and Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl while still being part of undivided Czechoslovakia.

“It’s a top-3 sport for sure. I think we’re very motivated. Definitely winning Grand Slams is where I want to be one day in my career. This is what I’m working for, to be the best in what I do.”

The situation is in stark contrast to India, which despite a decent tennis tradition and sufficient infrastructure, continues to be on the periphery of the world tennis map. Czech Republic, like India, has had minimal representation over the years on the tournament calendar, but has routinely punched above its weight.

Easy outing: Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski stretches to return, watched by her partner Luisa Stefani of Brazil, during the doubles final. The duo won in straight sets.

Easy outing: Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski stretches to return, watched by her partner Luisa Stefani of Brazil, during the doubles final. The duo won in straight sets. | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

Currently it has the WTA Prague Open, a 250-level tournament that has been running since 2015. There is also the WTA Agel Open in Ostrava, a 500-level competition that started only in 2020. Czech Republic has no ATP Tour tournaments.

Karman fights

Thus far, five of the eight singles winners at the Prague Open have been Czechs. At the Chennai Open, there were five Indians in the singles qualifying and all of them fell at the first hurdle.

In the main draw, Ankita Raina lost 0-6, 1-6 to Tatjana Maria, Wimbledon semifinalist in 2022. Karman Kaur Thandi won her opening round match before going down in straight sets — but not before a good fight — to the former top-5 player and Wimbledon 2014 finalist Eugenie Bouchard. India, however, needs more than just a spark.

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“We do need Indian tennis players to make Indian tournaments truly a success,” said Vijay Amritraj, Indian tennis legend and president of Tamil Nadu Tennis Association, the host of the event. “That is something that needs constant work. We need our girls and boys to have stronger commitments to make it like these kids who are playing here.

“You see this remarkable 17-year-old girl Fruhvirtova. I’m sure we’re going to see her in the final of Wimbledon. That is why this event is here; to encourage our boys and girls to think that they can do it too.”

Whether a standalone tournament can rekindle the fire is the question. Amritraj feels that there is a need for more tournaments.

“It is meant to truly inspire young girls to play the sport,” he said. “First sports in general, and then tennis in particular as far as we are concerned. But we do believe that we want to encourage more and more girls to play sport through their school and college years.”

Attendance at the Chennai Open — which peaked to near-capacity in the last two days — did suggest that fans (kids and the elderly included) warmed up to the tournament pretty well. It did not exactly have the best of starts, as Caroline Garcia, a top-10 player, pulled out after having made a deep run the week before, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

This, in fact, is the bane of a competition that is held in the week just after a Major. Last-minute pull outs are the norm. Even as Amritraj seeks to avoid it by aiming for a better slot in the coming years — preferably in the first quarter as the lead-up to premier WTA events in Doha and Dubai — it is imperative that Indians come to the party and look the part.

This year, there has been a fair share of tournaments for Indians to compete in. At the start of the year, there was the ATP 250 Tata Open Maharashtra, followed by two ATP Challengers in Bengaluru, a pattern that is set to be repeated in 2023 as well.

But, from a combined nine matches at these tourneys, India’s top Davis Cup singles players — Yuki Bhambri, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran — won a total of two matches across the three weeks, raising questions over their games, fitness and big-match temperament.

The women have so far had four ITF $15K and two ITF $25K competitions in 2022. Now, after the Chennai Open, they will have three back-to-back ITF $25K tournaments in Maharashtra in the month of December, which they should be desperate to capitalise on.

“At the end of the day, everything cannot be given for free,” Amritraj had said before the Chennai Open. “We knew the difficulties we came through in the seventies. There were none of the opportunities there are today. We need guys in the top-50. If it’s 1000 forehands a day, 1000 backhands a day, so be it.

“The last men’s singles guy to play singles at the Center Court is still me. That’s embarrassing. Even if you lose first rounds at all four Slams, you will make $400,000. If that is not an incentive, what is?”

*Rankings as on September 26, 2022.

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