It is not known when the tennis courts at the Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex in Balewadi last witnessed such frenzied activity, but observing preparations here on the eve of the Royal Indian Open, one thing is abundantly clear: something major is in town. Excitement is perhaps not limited to Pune alone, for it has been four years since a WTA event was held in the country – Serena Williams’s 2008 victory in Bangalore the last Indian brush with a women’s tournament with cachet.

Admittedly, the WTA Challenger Series ($ 125,000) – conceptualized earlier this year as a bridge between the WTA Tour and the ITF women’s circuit in “emerging markets” – will not have Serena’s ilk, but it still represents a major step-up. Top seed Nina Bratchikova is ranked 90 (as of October 29) in the world, while wild-card Andrea Petkovic – clearly the biggest draw here – was number nine 12 months ago, a season where she made three Grand Slam quarterfinals, before a lengthy injury-induced hiatus sent her tumbling down.

“It took a long time but I have recovered really well,” the German, ranked 140 now, said here on Sunday. “I think I made the right decision coming to this tournament. I haven’t had enough match practice so I’m looking to get that here. I hope to win this and get a good start into the new season.”

Ayumi Morita (ranked 75) would originally have been first seed here but the Japanese withdrew earlier this week, after picking up an injury in the first Challenger Series event in Taipei. Her compatriots Misaki Doi (second seed) and Kimiko Date-Krumm (third), organizers hope, will make up for that.

Also in action will be the prodigious 16-year-old Donna Vekic. Under coach David Felgate – once with Tim Henman – the Croat has won three ITF singles titles in a little over a year and is ranked a dizzy 114 already. She will be expected to go far here.

To the Indian players, five of whom will be involved here, the significance of the tournament is immense. Rutuja Bhosale, Prarthana Thombare and Prerna Bhambri were given wild-cards to the main draw while Rishika Sunkara and Nidhi Chilumula qualified on Sunday.

Rutuja had planned to play a junior tournament in South Korea but withdrew upon being informed of her entry. “Even getting through the first round here will fetch me 22 points,” the 16-year-old said. “I will move up by as many as 200 places (currently 704) in the rankings. It can change my whole calendar.”

Rishika made it through the final qualifying round on Sunday at the expense of Ankita Raina while Nidhi received a walk-over from Britain’s Emily Webley-Smith, who was denied entry into India at Mumbai owing to visa issues. Anushka Bhargava faltered at the last hurdle, losing to Slovakia’s Andreja Klepac in straight sets.

The Royal Indian Open is to be inaugurated on Monday by Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.


Rutuja pulls off a stunning victoryNovember 6, 2012

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