“By now, you know the range of shots, I hope. In the next break, I will ask you the difference between a slice and a drop shot,” a kid was warned by his enthusiastic father, while they waited at the stairs. Yuki Bhambri was on court against Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the race to the quarterfinals. He was on the verge of a defeat. But that didn’t deter people from coming in.
The Tata Open Maharashtra — India’s ATP 250 event — moved to Pune from Chennai this year due to sponsorship issues. It led to conjectures within the sports fraternity that international players may bid goodbye to the event, as the weather in Pune — on the colder side — may not be an ideal preparation for the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the season.
But all myths and doubts were buried as the tournament progressed.
Bhima Koregaon protests
Subah se aane ki koshish me hoon, ghar baith ke pak gaya yaar, cab chaloo hua toh bas aa gaya, tu kidhar hai? (I’ve been trying to come since morning, got bored at home, I came as soon as cabs started plying, where are you?),” this time, it was a teenager who was talking to his friend over the phone.
The Bhima Koregaon protests had instilled fright among the Maharashtrians in the belt since the night of January 2; not many vehicles were seen on the road. Fearing violence, cars remained ofif the roads. By late afternoon, the protestors disappeared and then, entered tennis.
Marin Cilic, the top seed and World No. 6, caught the pulse of the crowd that day itself. “Here, the crowd is way more into the game. Since the last few years, it was difficult to attract people in Chennai. Even the conditions are better. It is not as humid,” he said.
Despite the protestors’ atrocities, there were about 150 people in the stands on January 3. The number tripled by 5 p.m., when Cilic took court. In the evening, the cars on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway were like aces — all landing at the Balewadi Stadium gate.
Football meets tennis
The tournament came alive from January 4, the day of the quarterfinals. According to officials, the turnout rose up to 3,500 in the semifinals, which also included a few footballers from the Indian Super League franchise, FC Pune City; the football ground is right opposite the tennis stadium. Marcos Tebar was spotted in a jeans and a tee. “I am going to come for the finals too. This is great stuff,” he told this writer, after witnessing Gilles Simon’s win over Cilic. Sportstar understands that the footballer had requested one of the officials for a pass.
Support for the players
Simon, the singles champion, seemed to be the blue-eyed boy. Travelling without a coach, the 33-year-old French masterclass had an uncanny connection with the crowd. When he lost the first set 1-6 to Cilic, a voice from the stands shouted in Marathi, Simon! Bhale Hoao! Madat Madat! Mala Madat! (Simon, good luck! If you need help, I am your help), to which he acknowledged with a thumbs up. He bounced back to win the thriller.
Even Chennai-boy Ramkumar Ramanathan rated the venue highly. “We also had the Challenger here last year. People here turn up no matter who is playing.”
The fan park, with its food stalls, also accommodated spectators on the day of the final; the attendance touched 5,000 (approx). The capacity being 4,500, people had to choose between stairs or the screen at the park. Matwe Middelkoop, who won the doubles final with Robin Haase, nicely summed it up. “The crowd celebrates tennis here.”
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