SPORT

Even without marquee names, Tata Open holds promise

TEUTONIC TITAN: Former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker has been the biggest star to have played at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium so far. The fans went gaga over the presence of the great German. - Photo: N. Balaji

TEUTONIC TITAN: Former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker has been the biggest star to have played at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium so far. The fans went gaga over the presence of the great German. - Photo: N. Balaji  

CHENNAI, DEC. 30. In the long and wonderfully enlightening hours spent with Ramanathan Krishnan in the course of writing the book A Touch of Tennis, which was published by Penguin (India), this writer always noticed a glint in the great player's eyes every time he spoke about a match he played in Madras, as Chennai was called during his playing days.

It was almost as if Krishnan was reliving those dramatic moments on court like a kid recalling his big day out at an amusement park. His eyes would light up and India's most accomplished tennis player of all time would move to seat edge.

If Krishnan's ability to recall minute details from events enacted 30 to 35 years in the past was truly amazing, then the joy he seemed to experience in doing so was equally unmistakable.

Home is where the heart is

You would have thought, for a man who had featured in two Wimbledon semifinals and had beaten the best players of his era - the late 1950s and the 1960s - while climbing to No. 2 in the world ranking at one time, a few matches played in minor tournaments in his home town may not have been a big deal.

But, then, there is no place like home. And, for a sportsman - big or small, great or average - there is no feeling quite like what he might experience when performing in front of his home crowd.

Krishnan was lucky in that he played his best tennis long before professional tennis transformed the game in the high noon of commercialisation in the sport. In the event, several leading players of that era played in Madras in the late 50s and early 60s, providing Krishnan an opportunity to showcase his gifts in front of his home fans.

Unfortunately, successive generations of tennis players - from the Amritraj brothers, Vijay and Anand, down to Krishnan's son Ramesh - seldom had such opportunities, apart from playing in Davis Cup matches.

And Madras, once the tennis capital of India and very much its spiritual home, soon became the distant backwaters of world tennis, so to say. The only significant piece of tennis news to emanate from this city would make the sports pages of newspapers whenever Vijay or Ramesh happened to come back home after a major success overseas!

It is against this backdrop that the return of big- time tennis to Chennai, first in the form of the Gold Flake Open, and now in the re-christened shape of the Tata Open, which begins at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium on Monday, gains extraordinary significance.

While it is an irony of sport that such an event did not exist when Vijay Amritraj was ranked in the top 20 in the world and Ramesh was in the top 25 and both were equally capable of winning an event such as this at home, the Chennai ATP event is a big boost to players such as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi.

That neither of India's top two players - Paes and Bhupathi - is now capable of making the main draw of the Chennai event on merit is another point. For, together, these men are world beaters, as they have proved time and again. And the atmosphere at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium is magical every time these two step out to play a late night doubles match in front of an adoring crowd.

As well as the rising fortunes of India's best pair of tennis players, it is the consistent support of the game's fans in Chennai that has contributed to the success of the tournament, an award winning event on the ATP Tour.

Nowhere in India are tennis fans quite as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as they are in Chennai. And a succession of top players, from Richard Krajicek and Boris Becker and Patrick Rafter down to Carlos Moya, have thoroughly enjoyed playing in Chennai.

``I thought, after playing as long as I have, nothing would surprise me, that I have seen it all. But I never expected this here,'' said Boris Becker after beating Vladimir Voltchkov in the first round of the Gold Flake Open in April 1998.

Never has Chennai seen anything quite like the reception that the great German was accorded. Every single seat in the stadium was taken when he played and there were over a thousand fans waiting outside the stadium without tickets and desperately seeking entry.

So riveting was the spectacle that a German television channel flew in a special team to cover Becker's second round match which, unfortunately, the ageing German lost, setting off a long spell of mourning.

Although he was well past his prime when he played in Chennai, Becker was by far the biggest star to have featured in the ATP event in the city. So extraordinary is the German's charisma and his popular appeal that the presence of Rafter was almost forgotten in 1998 until Becker departed.

There is not a single player in this year's draw who can hope to match the excitement generated by the German icon. But, even a draw that does not feature any Top Ten player has some wonderfully intriguing possibilities.

There is so much depth in men's tennis, today, that a connoisseur of the sport does not have to be told that players ranked outside the top ten can play high quality tennis and, on their day, match world champions in terms of competitive fire and tactical maturity and technical skills.

It is precisely because of this, men such as Guillermo Canas, the top-seeded Argentine who moved from outside the top 100 to No. 14 this year, Thomas Johansson, the Swede who won two grass court tournaments before last Wimbledon, Fabrice Santoro, a star of France's Davis Cup triumph over Australia, the big serving Max Mirnyi from Belarus, the Slovakians Karol Kucera and Dominik Hrbaty, as well as the popular Romanian Andrei Pavel, have to be taken seriously.

Forget marquee names for the moment. For, each one of these players - as well as few others including the defending champion Michal Tabara - can provide a rich feast of tennis over the seven days here.

Of course, none of the visitors can set the pulse racing as much as our own Bhupathi and Paes, both of whom are keen to begin the year on a high after struggling through the early part of 2001.

As aware as they are about doubles being their bread and butter sport, both men are still keen on making an impression on their own. And this is going to take a lot of doing during the week as Bhupathi has been drawn against the experienced Czech Jiri Vanek and Paes plays last year's beaten finalist Andrei Stoliarov of Russia in the first round.

What is more, in the doubles event too, Bhupathi and Paes are up against a tough team, Andrei Pavel and Thomas Johansson. But, in the world of pro tennis these days, there are no easy matches, merely tough ones and tougher ones.

Then again, as much as we are looking forward to the electric atmosphere at the stadium when the world beating Indian pair gets down to business, it is indeed a pity that they will be the only Indians - even that thanks to wild cards - in the singles field.

It's become a familiar, frustrating routine for Indian players to play on the Saturday before the championship and disappear before Sunday dawns and the qualifying event moves to a climax.

Before the ATP event came to India over six years ago, and long before the proliferation of Challenger and Futures events, the single biggest reason offered by coaches and administrators for the absence of a good number of Indian players in the top tier of the game was this: our players don't have home tournaments in which to pick up points in familiar conditions.

Into the second year of the new millennium, we still do not have players who are good enough to qualify for a third level ATP event in which the top seed is ranked No. 14 in the world!

At this rate, once Bhupathi and Paes decide to quit the professional game, the only meaningful Indian participation in a tournament like the Tata Open will be from the sponsors, administrators and the media.

It won't be long before we have to begin to wrestle with this question: Are we a nation of tennis players or merely one of tennis fans?

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Monday's matches

Centre Court: 5 p.m. start: Dominik Hrbaty (Svk) v Axel Pretzsch (Ger); Opening ceremony; Leander Paes (Ind) v Andrei Stoliarov (Rus); Ivo Heuberger v Thomas Johansson (Swe).

Court 2: 4.30 p.m. start: Ota Fukarek (Cze) v Alex Calatrava (Esp); Olivier Rochus (Bel) v Martin Lee (GBR); Oliver Marach (Aut) v Andrei Pavel (Rom).

Court 3: 4.30 p.m. start: Devin Bowen (USA) & Ashley Fisher (Aus) v Juan Balcells (Esp) & George Bastl (Sui); Michal Tabara & Jiri Vanek (Cze) v Lucas Arnold & Guillermo Canas (Arg); Jonathan Elrich (Isr) & Irakli Labadze (Geo) v Byron Black (Zim) & Fabrice Santoro (Fra) & Fabrice Santoro (Fra); Rohan Bopanna (Ind) v Carlos Cuadrado (Esp) v Jaroslav Levinsky & David Skock (Cze).

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