It is the opening day of the Aircel Chennai Open. But before we can begin with the main draw, there is some unfinished business to take care of. Four matches in the final round of qualifying remain. Local spectator attention is focused on the first of these, where Ramkumar Ramanathan attempts to become the only Indian qualifier to make it to the main draw. Today, he is playing on the outside court against Norbert Gambos of Slovakia.
Ramanathan is a 19-year old teenager from Chennai, with an impressive array of strokes at his disposal. He is also an expressive young man, who doesn’t shy away from a chest thump, who has a laugh heavenwards when a net cord tips over onto his opponent’s side, who bites his racket in frustration on missing a couple of groundstrokes.
Today’s match twists one way and then the other, providing Ramanathan with ample opportunity to indulge in some histrionics. Deep into the third set, he wills himself to focus on each point, and increases his intensity level. Each shot from his racket is now punctuated by a prolonged cry of effort. His intensity translates onto the crowd, who cheer him along with increasing fervor. On match point, he touches the baseline with his hands in a gesture of prayer and good luck, before commencing his service motion. It works, and Ramanathan finds himself in the main draw, with a 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 victory. As fate would have it, he will now face Somdev Devvarman in the first round. It will be interesting to see who the crowd leans towards in that particular encounter.
Stanislas Wawrinka, top seed at the Chennai Open, takes time out to address a press briefing.
The mantle of overwhelming title favourite seems to rest lightly on his shoulders, as he hits all the right notes in confidently answering the queries directed at him. Yes, he always loves to begin his season in Chennai. Yes, it was an increase in self-confidence that led to his sparkling results over the last year. Yes, he expects some tough encounters over the next week, and only wants to take it one match at a time.
Perhaps, we should just wait for an interview with Wawrinka’s friend and doubles partner, Benoit Paire, to get some interesting insights.
The official tournament is finally underway, as Yen-Hsun Lu of Chinese Taipei takes on Tim Smyczek of USA on an outside court.
Lu shot to fame a few years back when he made it to the Wimbledon quarterfinals, beating Andy Roddick en route. Since then, he seems to be treading water in the Top 100 of the world.
I was seeing Smyczek for the first time today, and I was distracted by his lips, which tend to droop downwards, even when smiling, a bit like Robert de Niro. He also seemed to be an extremely polite guy, with a ‘thank you’ directed at every little gesture made by the ball kids. Smyczek is a small guy, with a smooth compact game, and he made a good start today, breaking Lu early in the first set. Lu came back strongly though, to take the upper hand in the contest. Both players are light on their feet, smooth in their movements, and their games are easy on the eye. It was like being at a mid-weight boxing match, with quick feet and quicker punches.
Even as the players were building up a good rhythm, cheers were heard in the distance, along with Charu Sharma’s familiar baritone on the loudspeaker, announcing the start of singles competition on centre court. Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan would be taking on Jiri Vesely, we were informed.
On the outside court however, as the match went on, Lu started to settle down, and began to run down his opponent, with some efficient, clean ball-striking. Soon, Lu had closed out the match 6-4, 6-2, and Smyczek’s lips had gone all the way down. It almost felt like Goodfellas.
Vasek Pospisil of Canada is up against the wild card entrant from the UK, Kyle Edmund, on centre court.
Edmund is all of 18 years old, and touted as a bright future prospect. The talent shone in flashes of brilliance through the match, as he came up with four break points. But his lack of experience on the big stage also came across, as he failed to convert any one of them.
Pospisil, on the other hand, is just off an impressive previous year, where he made some deep runs in the American fall hardcourt season, and was also instrumental in ensuring a Davis Cup semi-final appearance for Canada. The confidence showed, as he closed out the match efficiently for a 6-3, 7-5 victory. Pospisil will now meet Lu in the second round.
It’s been a quiet start to the Chennai Open, with some of the bigger names yet to make an appearance on court. The Indian presence has already been felt though, with Ramanathan providing reason to cheer. Tomorrow, the Indo-Pak express of Bopanna-Qureshi will begin their much-awaited comeback. We will also get our first glimpse of Devvarman, Wawrinka and Paire in the tournament.
But these are stories for another day. Tonight, as the pleasant night breeze wafts across, and the last spectators trickle out of the stadium, there is a satisfied air that the Chennai Open is well and truly underway.