Moya's history at this tournament has been good
CHENNAI: It's fifteen past noon and Carlos Moya is playing a practice match in the sun, out on Court No. 5. He hangs some three feet behind the baseline, punching groundstrokes and occasionally reaching for short balls without really moving forward. His once dominant forehand has lost some of its whack. Still, nobody writes off a former World No. 1.
His fellow Mallorcan, Rafael Nadal, gets to hit on Centre Court a little later, but the organisers assure me the arrangement had little to do with preferential treatment — Moya is using Centre Court later on Sunday evening. That may be so, but this year Nadal will doubtless attract more attention than the rest of the draw put together. The two-time defending Roland Garros champion thrives on crowd support, so it will be interesting to see how that symbiosis develops this week.
Moya, owner of a brace of titles in Chennai and a finalist last year, has in the past commented that Indian tennis fans are warmer, more boisterous, than most — which is true, but sociologically the issue is more complex. Our crowds are especially fond of champions; they are most receptive to brand names. The discerning fan is lost in a swell of faces. If the audience roots for the underdog, upon inspection it invariably emerges that the said individual has already made an impact on our consciousness. In the absence of real contact — never mind autograph sessions and other such meetings — whether a bond can genuinely exist between spectators and players is debatable. Notwithstanding our taste for movies drenched in sentimentality, this surge of love for Moya has always seemed affected, absurdly devoid of emotion.
Whether Moya is allowed to feel strongly about Chennai and its crowds is a different matter. "The tournament is great and the enthusiasm of the Chennai crowds is very encouraging," he tells me. "I love India and it's always a pleasure to come back here. I am really looking forward to playing here once again."
Somehow, this doesn't sound gratuitous when he says it — and he's said it in different ways to different people. But his is a love mediated by fame. After all, Moya hasn't yet had the opportunity to backpack around the country. What he understands of Chennai, he has most likely absorbed through the windows of a Mercedes Benz.
Moya's history at this tournament has been good, which is another reason for him to keep coming back, instead of testing the field in, say, Doha or Sydney.
At 30, Moya is practically an elder statesman, and Nadal, for one, has clearly benefited from his compatriot's experience. From time to time, one hears stories that the Spaniards on the Tour are not as close as they once were; that Moya's win over Alex Corretja in the 1998 French final led to a conflict of egos. Moya denies such a thing ever happened. "Everyone's still very close," he says. "I've known Nadal since he was 14. He's more a friend than a protégé."
Some kids ask Moya for his autograph as he cools down after the practice session. "Five minutes," he tells them gently. A moment later a wide-eyed girl turns up and squeals, "Nadal is on Centre Court!" And like that, they're all gone.