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Transformed Wawrinka is the favourite

N. Sudarshan
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Tennis / With direct entries at its lowest this time, the field seems more even than ever before

All in the head:Though Stanislas Wawrinka has a couple of tricky encounters early on, a performance anywhere close to his best will easily carry him to the semifinals. — Photo: R. Ragu
All in the head:Though Stanislas Wawrinka has a couple of tricky encounters early on, a performance anywhere close to his best will easily carry him to the semifinals. — Photo: R. Ragu

CHENNAI: For a few years now, there has been some debate on when exactly the tennis season ends. Officially it’s the ‘season-ending’ ATP World Tour Finals that draws the curtains. But increasingly there are signs that the period post the U.S. Open doesn’t necessarily bring a sense of closure but instead acts as harbinger and a precursor for things to come.

How else would one explain the glorious late-run that Novak Djokovic had in 2010 and then thoroughly dominated 2011? Roger Federer’s second-coming which started in late 2011 and ended with a title triumph at Wimbledon 2012? Or Andy Murray, with help from Ivan Lendl, fixing his game with a mechanic’s zeal towards the closing stages of 2012 and unburdening himself and his country of the weight of history in 2013?

This year has also been no different. Djokovic has had a splendid three months since New York, and is already touted to have had the head-start going into 2014. But it’s the story of man from outside the big four which takes the cake — the transformation of Stanislas Wawrinka from ‘Stan the nearly Man’ to ‘Stan the Man’.

In September his coach Magnus Norman was still talking about ‘insecurities’ and ‘lack of belief’, but at the season ending finale he seemed to have banished them all reaching the semifinal in his first ever attempt. It is in this backdrop that the Chennai Open begins for the 18th time on Monday, officially marking the start of the season, with Wawrinka, the top seed, an obvious choice for the favourite’s tag.

But over the years, favourites have found it tough here. With the cut-off for the direct entries at its lowest this time, the field seems more even than ever before.

Add to it the fact that most players arrive cold, except for Wawrinka who played at the Abu Dhabi invitation. The setting just seems ripe for upsets.

Wawrinka has last year’s finalist Roberto Bautista Agut in his quarter and the flamboyant Italian third seed Fabio Fognini in his half.

A performance anywhere close to his best will easily carry him to the semifinals. The bottom half has the former champion Mikhail Youzhny seeded number two, with Benoit Paire, Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Marcel Granollers for company.

For the Indian players other than Somdev Devvarman, the chances, sadly, hinge on what the international imports do. Wild card Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan opens the singles proceedings on Centre Court against Jiri Vesely, a Czech ranked more than 200 places above him. Yuki Bhambri, if he gets past Pablo Carreno Busta (No. 64), will have Fognini welcoming him next.

Devvarman opens against a qualifier, but could meet Granollers and Paire in successive rounds. From reaching a career-high No. 62 in 2011, to No. 663 at the end of 2012 to No. 90 now, his energies have so far been spent solely on not letting the rankings slip too far lest he be unable to catch-up. It remains to be seen where he goes from here.

On Sunday evening, Wawrinka had a two-hour long hit-in on the show court. After initially overcooking his signature one handed backhands he settled down into a nice rhythm. He will have a couple of more days to polish the rough edges, if any. Till such a time it’s for the others be the show-stoppers.

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