2013 began memorably for Indian tennis — in the singles at least. First Prakash Amritraj did the family name proud, playing inspired, combative tennis to defeat the much higher ranked Guillaume Rufin 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-3.
Then Somdev Devvarman joined Prakash in the second round of the Aircel Chennai Open, his 6-3, 6-3 victory over Jan Hajek, a result of the focussed, relentless style he is known for.
Prakash had to mine every last reserve, for he has had to play four matches in three days. His father, the legendary Vijay Amritraj, was on hand for a hug and the on-court interview, but it was Prakash who had the line of the night: “How do you feel? You look like you’ve been through a war, your hair is all over the place,” he said.
Prakash’s hair, on the other hand (or head, if you must), stayed in order, much like his game.
Rufin appeared the taller, rangier player, hitting a more upright, wristy forehand and a flatter two-handed backhand. Prakash, more muscular, seemed to throw himself into the forehand, particularly the longer the rally got.
They began evenly matched. After an exchange of breaks, the first set went to a tie-break. Prakash opened up a 3-0 lead and had a pass lined up, but he guided his two-hander just wide.
Rufin raised his level to win the next five points and, eventually, the tie-break.
This was Prakash’s moment of truth. Was the effort of running the World No. 92 close too much for a man, who six months back was lounging on his couch wondering if he’d pick up a tennis racquet again? The answer was stirring.
It helped that he served first in the second set, for he could pressure Rufin’s serve, which tended to double-fault at inopportune moments. Prakash was also better off the ground. He changed direction more often, waiting and timing either the forehand or the two-handed backhand down the line to finish points.
Prakash’s natural ability to serve and volley kept Rufin off balance, for it followed no discernible pattern.
Rufin’s inability to punish the short second serve from his backhand wing meant he couldn’t hurt Prakash. The rally was reset from a position of advantage.
Frustration set in, and the two-hander began finding the net more often.
Prakash broke in the sixth game, three forehands — two viciously struck, one shanked — doing the job. He broke again to take the set.
The Frenchman was visibly tightening, his timing disappearing as it’s apt to when an anxious mind tries to take over the mechanical skill of ball-striking, a trained, instinctive activity.
Prakash needed medical treatment, but neither mind nor body wavered. Having broken early, he stayed strong. He had a moment to himself at the end; then it was time to share it with his father, his family, and his fans.
By the time the crowd had settled, Devvarman raced to an early lead.
“You want send a message early in the Chennai heat and humidity,” he said of his red-hot start. “You want to say to him, ‘I’m here to play’. You want to make him work for every point.”
Devvarman broke the 106-ranked Hajek in the first and the ninth games to clinch the first set, and although he fell a break behind early in the second, he had nothing to fear.
Hajek strikes a pretty two-handed backhand, but he hasn’t the ability to hit through the court.
And without that ability against Devvarman, whose movement is world-class, there are few ways to win a point; unfortunately for Devvarman, his next opponent, the top-seeded Tomas Berdych, is one of the best in the world at producing a penetrative stroke.
The night was soured slightly for the fans despite the two singles wins: Leander Paes and his partner, Edouard Roger-Vasselin, crashed out of the doubles, losing 7-6 (7), 6-1 to the 2008 champions, the Ratiwatana twins from Thailand.
First round: Prakash Amritraj (Ind) bt Guillaume Rufin (Fra) 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-3; Matthias Bachinger (Ger) bt 7-Yen-Hsun Lu (Tpe) 6-4, 3-6, 6-4; Cedrik-Marcel Stebe (Ger) bt Igor Sijsling (Ned) 6-4, 6-4; 5-Benoit Paire (Fra) bt Flavio Cipolla (Ita) 6-3, 6-4; Roberto Bautista Agut (Esp) bt Blaz Kavcic (Slo) 7-6 (6), 6-2; Somdev Devvarman (Ind) bt Jan Hajek (Cze) 6-3, 6-3; Dudi Sela (Isr) bt Rajeev Ram (USA) 6-4, 6-1; Sergiy Stakhovsky (Ukr) bt Ruben Bemelmans (Bel) 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5).
Doubles: First round: Sanchai Ratiwatana (Tha) & Sonchat Ratiwatana (Tha) bt 2-Leander Paes (Ind) & Edouard Roger-Vasselin (Fra) 7-6 (7), 6-1.