The lead-up to the Tata Open Maharashtra, which begins here on Monday, best resembles the early days of a heady romance. After having found a near-permanent home in Chennai for 21 years, the tournament is set to start a fresh relationship here in Pune.
Almost everything is new and exciting – the spruced up stands, the commentary box and the immaculately-laid courts. Substitutes for Chennai's famed embroidered shawls and vermillion marks are yet to be seen, but surely the Puneri Pagadis [a local symbol of honour] will soon make their appearance.
Unlike in recent times, even the top seed and the biggest draw, Marin Cilic – sporting his own exotic line of FILA clothing – descended almost a week ahead of his first match. The hope is now for the tennis to match the grandeur and the signs, at least on paper, are that it will.
In Cilic, Kevin Anderson, Roberto Bautista Agut and Benoit Paire – the top four seeds – the field can boast of a player in every mould. Cilic, the 2014 US Open Champion, and Anderson, the Major's latest finalist, are among the foremost exponents of first-strike tennis.
The only hindrance may be the conditions; the city's higher altitude often makes controlling shots difficult, but the courts and the balls have reportedly been calibrated enough to mitigate that. Also, the fact that the two aren't defending any points from last year will ease some pressure though Cilic, the World No. 6, will look to erase 2017's early exit from his memory.
For Agut, the defending champion from Chennai, the elements are not expected to present much of a problem. The Spaniard, while not being an out-and-out grinder, is known for his controlled aggression and is a tough nut to crack.
And in the erratic but flamboyant Frenchman Benoit Paire, the tournament has its entertainer. True to his character, he almost landed in the qualifying draw after having “forgotten” to send in his entry in time before a string of pull outs and administrative benevolence saved him.
The Indians in the main draw – four of them after Sumit Nagal came through the qualifying – should revel. Tickets are competitively priced for as low as ₹150 to guard against the kind of spectator apathy which repeatedly afflicted Chennai in the initial days of competition. There being only 2500-odd seats, the move can lead to an intense atmosphere.
Read: Tickets slashed to Rs 150
For local boy Arjun Kadhe, who will also be playing doubles with Paire, it will be an experience and an education like none other. Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan have had fine seasons and the event can be another of the important steps in them graduating further.
“Hoping to continue from where I left off last year,” said Bhambri. “I am happy to have had some tennis behind me coming in here. It will be great if I can get a few matches in and get the rankings high up to play more ATP events.”
The timing of the Tata Open, just after the off-season, is ideal to make its stars vulnerable. Yet it has a rich history of top seeds winning it and there is no inkling of a change this time around.
Read: Bhambri up against Kadhe, Cilic gets bye
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