Indian youngsters' chance to shine at big stage
By Amanpreet Singh
Pune, Dec 31 (PTI) Indian youngsters, led by Yuki Bhambri, will look to exploit the familiar home conditions and start the new season on a high even as Wimbledon finalist and world number six Marin Cilic will start as favourite at the inaugural Tata Open Maharashtra, beginning here tomorrow.
It will be easier said than done for the home players since there can't be drastic progress in their game overnight but Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan did enjoy stupendous success against top players in 2017, raising hopes of a strong show here.
Only these two Indians are featuring in the singles draw at the event, which moved out of Chennai due to financial issues. Much more is expected from the doubles draw, which will have four Indian pairs competing.
Bhambri has enjoyed an unbeaten run on tennis courts at Balewadi Sports Complex since October 2015. The 25-year-old has won 10 matches here on the trot, pocketing two Challenger titles but the level of opponents will be completely different at the ATP 250 event, which will have five top-50 players.
The Delhi player could not have asked for an easier draw as he opens his 2018 campaign against local boy Arjun Kadhe, who has returned to professional circuit only this year after completing graduation degree from University of Oklahoma and is ranked below 600.
For long, India has been looking for a singles player who can compete at the big stage and inspire new generations. When Bhambri won the 2009 junior Australian Open and was ranked world number one, a lot of expectations were riding on him. But those expectations did not materialise.
He has the game and did his bit but lack of support coupled with injuries marred his progress. Bhambri is India's number one tennis players but he is still without a regular coach, who would travel with him on Tour.
Nevertheless, Bhambri on his own has managed to break the top-100 barrier and will carry home hopes, irrespective of the tough field. Going by recent form and fitness, he is expected to reach at least quarterfinals and may have to face World No. 81 Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France after getting past Kadhe.
Ramkumar, who shocked World No. 8 Dominic Thiem at Antalya Open, has been drawn against Spain's Carballes Baena, the World No. 108, in his opening round. The gritty Chennai player will run into Cilic, if he crosses the first hurdle. It's time that Ramkumar, who is aggressive and has a fearsome inside-out forehand, makes his presence felt at the biggest tennis event in India.
Mere doing well on the Challenger circuit will not take him to Grand Slams. He has shown promise but perhaps needs to have more faith in his talent. A win over a player of the caliber of Thiem would not have come if he did not have it in him. With that win, the mental barrier has been broken and it must be taken forward. He has got tremendous support from TNTA, which has taken care of his training in Spain.
It remains to be seen if Sumit Nagal and Prajnesh Gunneswaran join these two compatriots in the main draw. They need one win each to make it to the main draw.
Cilic, who suffered a shock second round loss in the last edition in Chennai, did not end the season on a great note, losing all three matches at season-ending finale in London but had ended a runner-up to Roger Federer at the Wimbledon.
The six feet six inches Croat has beaten most of the players in the field, including defending champion Roberto Bautista Agut, in 2017 and, barring an upset, he is unlikely to be challenged much before the semifinal stage.
He managed to win only one title on the Tour -- Istanbul Cup -- out of three finals in 2017 and it is the easiest of draw for him to win a trophy at the start of the season.
Bautista-Agut, the world number 20, will be under pressure to defend his points even as he is the only player in the singles draw to have won two titles in 2017 season -- Chennai and Winston Salem Open.
Another hot contender will be US Open finalist and second seed Kevin Anderson, the world number 14 from South Africa.
He had a breakthrough performance at the last Grand Slam of the season, losing to the great Rafael Nadal in the final. He had also ended a runner-up at the Citi Open, where he lost the trophy to world number eight Alexander Zverev of Germany.
Apart from these three, the other top-50 players in the draw are Benoit Paire (41) and Robin Haase (42).
India will have a lot of interest in doubles where nine players are in fray. Legendary Leander Paes and his partner Purav Raja have been pitted against defending champions Rohan Bopanna and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan. It's match which could easily been reserved for a final, due to obvious reasons.
Paes, at 44, is not winning much on the ATP World Tour, but the sheer passion for the game is still driving him. There is a strong possibility that it would be one of the last times that fans will see him play at home since there are not many events India is hosting these days.
Had it not been for timely effort of MSLTA, India would have lost the only ATP World Tour event it hosts