As the city gets ready for another edition of the Aircel Chennai Open, here’s a look at what it holds for the State’s best-ranked players
From providing a platform to see world class players perform at close quarters to giving an exposure to top Indian talents to be part of the milieu, the Aircel Chennai Open has done quite a lot for tennis. It has been the site for a string of breakthroughs, building on which the players have now reached unparalleled heights. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi’s first ATP title in 2002, Rohan Bopanna’s first ever doubles final in 2006 and Somdev Devvarman’s first ever ATP final in 2009, all these are significant milestones for Indian tennis.
But for this coterie of players, a place in the main draw of this premier ATP 250 event has been an elusive dream for most, including the budding players from Tamil Nadu. Try as much as they do to improve year after year, the global world of tennis perennially seems to be a couple of steps ahead. In fact, in the last four years, only Prakash Amritraj has made it past the qualifying rounds to the main draw (in 2010 and 2013), while Yuki Bhambri (world no.195) has received wild cards.
“We are obviously better placed (than earlier years),” says Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, India’s third best singles player in the world at No. 312. “But a lot of others are getting better too.”
The cluster consisting of himself, his doubles partner Sriram Balaji, ranked 380, and Ramkumar Ramanathan, No. 502, among others, have all had impressive years, notching up their best ever rankings. Nineteen-year-old Ramkumar, sponsored by the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA), has especially had a fantastic tune-up, winning two back-to-back ITF Futures tournaments, which has enabled him jump a whopping 200 places in just a month.
But they are now faced with the lowest ever cut-off for direct entries in the tournament’s history at No. 89, pushing even the country’s highest ranked player, Somdev, out of the main draw. As a result, the qualifying field might sport talents ranking as high as 90, including Sergiy Stakhovsky, who dumped Roger Federer out of Wimbledon in the second round, should he choose to compete.
“Qualifying is very tough,” says the TNTA Secretary C.B.N. Reddy. “It’s like a $100,000 Challenger tournament. In 2011, the current world no. 11, Milos Raonic lost in the final qualifying round but won the title in 2012. So that’s the standard and perhaps as tough as the main draw.”
However, efforts to boost local representation have started in earnest. Held as one of the main reasons, the absence of a single challenger event for a number of years is set to be rectified. In February 2014, two $50,000 (Chennai and Kolkata) and one $100,000 Challengers (Delhi) are scheduled. Come 2015, there could be three in Tamil Nadu alone.
These long-term measures aside, backing for the players for the 2014 edition seems forthcoming. “We will continue supporting them,” says Karti.P.Chidambaram, Chairman, Tournament Organising Committee and the AITA vice-president. “It’s likely that a Tamil Nadu player will be given a wild card in the singles and certainly in the doubles.”
For this year, the Open will continue doing what it has been doing all these years. As Jeevan and Ramkumar say, “Soothes your nerves and prepares you mentally for battles abroad, helps you not to be awestruck when you meet top players elsewhere, drives you to practise more, focus more and learn a lot by just getting out there.” But who knows, a surprise may be in store. Remember 2009, when a player ranked 202 made a memorable run to the final?