Two gladiators went hammer and tongs at each other for close to three hours, resulting in a match that will be remembered for a long time to come. The champ, meanwhile, played with a sense of urgency and a killer instinct that laid down a clear marker to anyone and everyone looking to challenge him. It was a day of contrasting wins on Day 6 of the 2015 Aircel Chennai Open, with each match captivating the audience in its own way.
One of the best matches in the tournament’s history at the Aircel Chennai Open
The remarkable run of Slovenia’s Aljaz Bedene continued on Saturday evening at the Aircel Chennai Open as he outlasted his good friend and third seed at this year’s tournament, Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, in a dramatic semi-final 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10).
I was of the opinion that if the match went long and got tight, the advantage would lay with Bautista Agut, as he is more solid from the back and loves to run, coupled with the fact that he plays such a steady game that it’s tough to draw an error from him. To add to that, Bedene was playing his seventh match in as many days, having come through the qualifiers. So how would he hold up physically if this one got drawn out? Would the legs disappear from under him?
But there I was, at the end of an absorbing encounter that lasted two hours and 43 minutes, giving this 25-year-old Slovenian a standing ovation along with the rest of those crammed inside the SDAT Tennis Stadium in Chennai, fully recognizing the scale of the effort put in by Bedene to topple the 14th-ranked player in the world.
Bedene overcame Bautista Agut, fatigue, four match points, 15 break points (of which he saved 10 – yes, 10!) and some costly unforced errors to emerge victorious in this tussle.
Five breaks of serve in the first six games provided an early indication of things to come. This inability to hold serve was perhaps a result of them having practised together in the pre-season; they know each other’s games inside out. It was Bautista Agut who stayed the more resolute though, as he pocketed the first set with Bedene committing 20 unforced errors.
That’s when the drama began. Bedene got the all-important break in the second and was serving for the set when he played a very tentative, passive game and suddenly presented Bautista Agut with the chance to break back. But the Slovenian’s serve came to his rescue and he played some crunch points with the utmost of calm to jump over that hurdle and level the match.
The third set was tense and riveting, as both players seemed to find extra gears in response to what their opponent was doing. Bautista Agut ran down balls that looked like sure winners, Bedene came to the net and showed some great hands there, playing with a wonderful sense of abandon. The Spaniard went ahead early in the third 3-1 before being reeled in by Bedene.
Down two match points at 15-40, 4-5, Bedene produced three aces and a service winner to neutralize the threat. And just when you thought that the conclusion might be near, the game was forced on longer thanks to great hustles from both the players.
The most heart-stopping point of the match came in the third set tie-break when, down another match point (6-7), Bedene rushed to the net only to find the ball come low at his feet. He picked the ball off from his shoelaces with the deftest of touches, as the ball barely trickled over to the other side of the net, clipping the tape on its way. Bautista Agut could not believe it.
Right through the match, Bedene’s serve was the difference maker; when he got it in, he was able to dictate the point and get on the attack, and when he didn’t, he was made to suffer. In the first set he won only 60% of his first serve points, but that number went up to 75% and 72% respectively in the next two. The Slovenian sent down seven of his 15 aces in the decider, with quite a few of those coming on the really big points.
The pattern of the match became one of Bautista Agut trying to keep Bedene pinned on his backhand side, while the Slovenian was all the while looking to run around it and dictate play going inside-out with his forehand. The Spaniard was looking to take advantage of that by drawing Bedene wide on the forehand instead and use his forehand up the line to good effect.
There were many occasions when Bedene looked dead and buried, yet he willed himself to stay alive. The amount of support that he received as he continued to dig deep and fight was unimaginable. The crowd took cognizance of every effort that he took, every sinew he strained, and was right behind him. The noise levels had to be seen and heard live to be believed; I don’t think any TV camera could have picked up the crackling support this man got.
"It's my first final," said Bedene after the game. "It feels really good. All the hard work I've put into it in the pre-season. I'm excited to be playing tomorrow. I'm playing really well now. I'm looking forward to it."
Bedene, who is playing his first tournament since October last year, was in for another boost at the end of the game as he was presented with a cheque for 1,00,000 rupees by one of the tournament sponsors, Casa Grande, for being the emerging star of the tournament.
Wawrinka elevates his game for the Goffin challenge
Just as the crowd was recovering from the marathon first semi-final, top seed Stan Wawrinka and fourth seed David Goffin started their clash in enterprising fashion. The speed of the rallies was electric, and both players looked to polish the corners for winners. The quality of tennis from both was high enough to live up to the treat that people expected it to be.
Wawrinka though got the crucial break to take the first set 7-5 and once he did that, he took his game to another level in the second. He wasn’t wrong when he said after the game that it was his best performance of the week; he was all over Goffin in the second, and the Belgian had simply no response to the Swiss’ barrage.
"I was really focused on my game," said Wawrinka. "I was really aggressive, trying to make him move and make winners. It was the best match of the week for sure; a really good level."
In that second set, Wawrinka played some of the tennis that usually leads to gasps from the crowd, when those in attendance cannot quite believe that he pulled off the shot. It’s the tennis that helped him gate-crash the parties of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer last year.
If Wawrinka brings that level for the final, this writer thinks Bedene will be walking away with the runner-up shield.
But the Slovenian isn’t one to back off – that much we’ve seen already. And considering it’s the last day, he’s going to bring the kitchen sink if needed, and that maverick hustle.
“I am a bit tired, but tomorrow will be the last day. I will give it my all,” said Bedene.
Purav Raja and Adil Shamasdin bow out
Something about the pairing was not right on Saturday. Whether it was the shift from the outside courts to the main stadium court or something else, Raja and Shamasdin simply could not reach the standards they had set in previous rounds, as they went down in three sets against the team of Yen-Hsun Lu and Jonathan Marray.
Some easy volleys were misjudged and they were a step slow getting to balls; there was a lot of indecisiveness, which contributed to their downfall. This means there will be only one Indian in the doubles final – the veteran Leander Paes, who is gunning for a fifth doubles title here.
As they walked off the court, Raja and Shamasdin looked absolutely dejected, even a little irate, as a water bottle was flung in disgust. Perhaps they were angry that they put in such a sub-par performance when they had a great chance to get to the final.
Finals day – Sunday
This is what it all boils down to – the final two matches of the 2015 Aircel Chennai Open. We will know who walks away the winner in the singles and doubles categories by the end of the day.
In the men’s final, it’s top seed and defending champion Stan Wawrinka from Switzerland against the 25-year-old qualifier and giant killer Aljaz Bedene from Slovenia. The Swiss is aiming to make it back-to-back wins in Chennai and three titles in five visits.
In the doubles, India’s Leander Paes teaming up with South Africa’s Raven Klaasen will look to bring it home against Jonathan Marray of Great Britain and Yen-Hsun Lu of Taiwan.