From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.04 :: Jan. 24, 2009

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TENNIS / CHENNAI OPEN

An Indian figures in the finale!

One among the 60-odd tournaments on the ATP Tour, the Chennai event is eagerly awaited by thousands for multifarious reasons. Some await the badge-flaunting, others drool at the prospect of getting a concentrated dosage of the city’s leer-worthy crowd; still others dig the possibility of striking fruitful business contacts, and only a rare minority looks forward to the actual tennis, writes Kunal Diwan.

PICS R. RAGU

Champion Marin Cilic with runner-up Somdev Devvarman.

The “perfect preparation” for the Australian Open, if one believed the players, the Chennai Open was off to a most imperfect start this year. Ivan Ljubicic was a last minute withdrawal, second-seed Stanislas Wawrinka lost in the first round, and top-seed Nikolay Davydenko limped out of contention in the second.

One among the 60-odd tournaments on the ATP Tour, the Chennai event is eagerly awaited by thousands for multifarious reasons. Some await the badge-flaunting, others drool at the prospect of getting a concentrated dosage of the city’s leer-worthy crowd; still others dig the possibility of striking fruitful business contacts, and only a rare minority looks forward to the actual tennis. Such tourneys are all about the sidelights — the fashion promos and social visits — especially when most of the ‘major stars’ that grace them are, to use a cruel coinage, ‘has-beens’ or ‘promising talents’ or inhabitants of the battle-hardened middle-to-lower rungs of international tennis’ pecking order.

The occasionally dangerous, largely insipid floaters in the draw — the Satschkos and the Koellerers — were those that made up the numbers, awaiting, like goats at a sacrificial fair, a thorough hacking before a paying crowd. Like chaff from grain, the drifters were sifted out on a match-by-match basis. But stories are born only when someone goes against the grain, and some stubborn, weedy variants that refused to be pulled out, uprooted the favourite and put their own names into the next round. India’s wildcard entrant Somdev Devvarman and Spain’s Marcel Granollers were two such unexpected gatecrashers into the semifinals.

The beneficiary of reams of positive newsprint, the wispy Devvarman disregarded Carlos Moya’s reputation, though fading, as a Grand Slam winner in the second round and then made light of Ivo Karlovic’s Mach-three bombshells in the quarterfinal. The only thing Karlovic had to say after losing in straight sets was how this was “the worst match I have ever played”.

Sprightly on court and chirpy during media interactions, Devvarman gave a fair inkling of shoring up Indian presence on the ATP circuit in the coming years. Whether or not his waif-like frame would hold up to the test is altogether another issue.

Meanwhile, Granollers, ranked 50 and on the path of rapid improvement, was having a great tournament before he ran into someone who was possibly the most improved player on the circuit — Croat Marin Cilic. Crediting compatriot Goran Ivanisevic for “getting me together with coach Bob Brett”, Cilic won a politically-charged, topsy-turvy quarterfinal against Serbian tattoo fetishist Janko Tipsarevic and then snubbed Granollers in straight sets in the semis to set up a final showdown with Devvarman. The Indian had earlier received a walkover against German Rainier Schuettler, who pulled out of his semifinal with an injured wrist.

Dusk, as Saki would have it, was the hour of the defeated, but evenings at the Chennai Open assumed a life of their own, vanquishing the darkness with sodium lights and the aura of bleach-cleansed visages. Once the great ball of fire sank beyond a smoggy horizon, and the twang of strings in simple harmonic motion wafted from the courts, the entire arena readied itself for battle. The coppers went on high alert, the stall-owners threw the bacon in the fire and waited for hunger pangs to set in, the adjunctive staff embraced their self-important egos and spiral notebooks closer to their chests, and the players — tall, robotic, aloof and mostly puppet-like if one went by their post-match interactions — braced themselves for gruelling sessions of the journalistic kind.

An uncorked bottle of the golden tincture went a long way in increasing the preparedness of the press room. Passed around, with so much gusto that the end result was an overtly diluted portion of questionable potency, the Scottish beverage lent spirit to the slaving scribes, pepping them up like only the magical dram of a fabled druid can. Fabienne Benoit, the ATP media manager, stayed — to the best of one’s knowledge — away from the fluid, and would have had no idea of the passive fan following she left in her wake.

With most eyes on her during player conferences, Ms. Benoit played to the gallery, marking each day with a new jaw-dropping outfit. It also helped that the redhead managed her professional affairs with the curt efficiency of a Finishing School headmistress.



Marcel Granollers, a much improved player.

“Last question please, none after this one,” seemed to be her favourite departure line, at times cutting short eager players in mid-syllable.

And so arrived the final day, with an Indian in contention for the title for the first time in the tournament’s 14-year history. The crowd poured in; in an age when it’s impossible to drive a differentiating wedge between sports and entertainment, a diverse intermingling of the end user was to be expected. A sweeping scan of any one section of the stands revealed, in equal measures, socialites (identification pointers: air kisses and glitter nail paint), poseurs (shiny, obviously sparingly used tennis racket), freebie pass-holders (alternate nervous and lecherous look in the eye), and of course the conscientious tennis parent (peppy kids in tow), the self-immersed love birds (arms and lips locked) and the genuine aficionado of the game (bare-handed, eyes on the court).

Though they cheered themselves hoarse, the seven-thousand-strong crowd couldn’t bridge the obvious gulf in quality between Devvarman and Cilic.

It also took only a little bit of objectivity to realise that the country’s “great, young prospect” was three years senior in age to Cilic and, arguably, a year junior in physical and match-play maturity. The Croat took home the $73,000 winner’s cheque after a regulation straight set encounter, while Devvarman — guilty of having squandered no less than nine break points — returned richer by $37,000.

With the contract between the Chennai Open organisers, the consortium of sponsors, and the IMG in its last year of existence, rumours on the tournament’s future spread like fast-spreading contagion on a mouldy petri dish. Any person, relevant or otherwise, had ‘inside’ information to divulge. IMG managing director Ravi Krishnan — pairing drainpipes with dinner jacket — reiterated that all was well and negotiations were on.

“If it happens in India, it will definitely remain in Chennai. We are working closely with the TNTA to make that happen,” he said.



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