You almost don’t realize how time flies by. Just the way Chennai’s margazhi music festival has become a regular in ushering in the incumbent year, its annual ATP Tour tennis event has nailed down a spot in January, ushering in the new year.
The 2015 edition of the Aircel Chennai Open, India’s only ATP World Tour event, kicked off yesterday at the SDAT Tennis Stadium in Nungambakkam in Chennai in what is its 20th year of existence (through its various avatars).
Making your way to the stadium, there’s always a palpable sense of excitement about watching some of the best players in the world live in action. That, however, kicks into a whole new gear when you actually take a seat and wade into the action.
Wawrinka starts the proceedings in Chennai
There isn’t a better way to kick-start a tournament than to actually listen to the guy who took home the trophy the previous year – Stan Wawrinka. 2014 was a breakthrough year for the Swiss, his best ever in his own words. It was the year that the ‘Stanimal’ finally reached the promised land of Grand Slam champions, one that his talents had promised all these years without any fulfillment.
The 2014 Chennai Open champion became the 2014 Australian Open champion. Amongst other firsts, Wawrinka also won a Masters 1000 tournament for the first time and even temporarily replaced Roger Federer as the top Swiss player in the game. After a bit of a mid-season lull, he finished the year off strongly, as a Davis Cup champion for the very first time. And it all started right here in Chennai.
Wawrinka spoke on his expectations for 2015, about how regardless of all that was achieved last year, it was about starting from scratch once more in the new season. While admitting that it would be tough to do it all again, and touching upon the ‘Big Three’ (Novak Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal) and other upcoming talent, he promised to try his best. When at the top of his game Wawrinka can hang with the best, and that’s what he reiterated.
The press conference was a nice way to set the table, and while he didn’t have a match yesterday (Wawrinka has a bye in the first round and plays his first match on Wednesday), it was nice to hear the thoughts of the man who used his win here to spur him on to such great heights.
N. Prashanth rallies for another comeback
While Wawrinka did the talking literally, the man who was the talk of the day with his exploits on the court was local lad N. Prashanth who, after repeated attempts, finally made it into the main draw of the Aircel Chennai Open. The local boy had put paid to Yuki Bhambri’s hopes the day before yesterday, coming back from losing the first set 1-6, and yesterday saw a similar effort from Prashanth as he battled back to beat Yulia Marchenko of Ukraine after losing the first set 2-6.
Something of a comeback guy in the making, a visibly tired Prashanth walked into the media room, showcasing relief and a sense of satisfaction at having finally made it. He expressed how eight years of attempt after attempt had finally borne fruit, and the joy of getting into the main draw here at long last.
“I’ve been wanting to get into the main draw of the event since I started playing here. Finally, it’s happened,” Prashanth said.
Prashanth also revealed how his set-up doesn’t include a coach at the moment and how he’s been fortunate to have some good friends helping him out.
“I don’t even have a coach at the moment, but I practise with a friend and I have a trainer, so they’ve helped me a lot,” he added.
His reward is a first round match against emerging 21-year-old Jiri Vesely of the Czech Republic, currently ranked 66th in the world and winner of the ATP Star of Tomorrow Award in 2013. It’s going to be a tough ask, especially without a day’s break, but here’s wishing him well.
Gilles Muller and Edouard Roger-Vasselin play out a thriller
Out on Stadium Court, last year’s runner-up Edouard Roger-Vasselin was taking on Gilles Muller. Despite Muller being the higher ranked player (he’s the No. 8 seed), much of the support was for Vasselin, who garnered many fans with his fight during his run in 2014. The first set was a close one, and Roger-Vasselin won it 13-11 in the breaker which led to Muller throwing the ball away in frustration.
Rather than letting that loss get to him though, Muller went and got out the jackhammer, as he pretty much pounded Roger-Vasselin into submission in the second set (winning it 6-1) with his big-serving. He didn’t let up in the third either, fighting back from a break down to eventually take the match. When he broke back, an enthusiastic fan with a great sense of timing shouted out, “Its Muller time!”
Muller is a giant of a man; he pretty much towers over everyone else and all of us looked like little minions in front of him. He’s got a bit of the Greg Rusedski look about him. The man from Luxembourg was clearly delighted with his win – “It feels great, it would have been a tough one to lose since it was the first match of the year.”
Not only was it an impressive win, it was also a good display of serve-and-volley tennis from Muller in this age of drawn-out baseline rallies.
“I was pretty passive in the first set. Then I got more aggressive in the next two sets. For me it is crucial to find ways to finish off points at the net as I can’t rally with these guys from the baseline,” Muller said.
Injury forces Granollers into retirement
While the 8th seed progressed, the tournament lost its 7th seed, Marcel Granollers of Spain. The semi-finalist from last year withdrew with injury in the third set of his match against Andreas Haider-Maurer of Austria.
The best atmosphere of the evening prevailed at the doubles match when local boys Jeevan Neduncheziyan and Sriram Balaji took on the team of Yen-Hsun Lu and Jonathan Marray. The Indian boys played well too, forcing a match tie-break after splitting the first two sets. But nerves and the relative lack of experience got the better of the Indians in that phase, which led to them bowing out.
Neduncheziyan still looked upbeat despite the loss as I met up with him in the players’ lounge, but just like the other local players he deflected attention away from him and on to N. Prashanth. “The man of the moment!” screamed out Jeevan.
Coric might be the next big thing
Lastly, I was personally looking forward to getting a glimpse of 18-year-old Borna Coric of Croatia who went on last against Robin Haase of the Netherlands. Coric made headlines when he crushed Rafael Nadal at the Basel Swiss Indoors towards the end of last year on his way to a meteoric rise in the rankings.
He is the youngest player currently in the top 100 in the men’s game and became the first 17-year-old to break into the top 100 last year since… Nadal and Richard Gasquet. He is the winner of the ATP Star of Tomorrow Award for 2014.
And the teenager came to play, shocking his opponent and fans alike with the level of his game. His groundstrokes carried so much oomph that Haase simply had no response and was broken five times during the match. Coric punished Haase on his second serve, the Dutchman winning just four games and 26% of his second serve points.
The Croat has got a bit of swag about him too; in the lead up to the tournament he’d mentioned that he wanted to get into the top 50 and how it was “doable”. He’s heading into a blockbuster clash with top seed Wawrinka on Wednesday and that match is going to carry a lot of excitement.
Teenage sensations. Long last breakthroughs. Excitable crowd wallowing in the cool evening breeze fully behind the Indian players. Day one of the Aircel Chennai Open 2015 was about promise, of what could be. If it does hold out to be as good what we expect it to be, this tournament is going to be a lot of fun.Published 06 Jan 2015, 09:47 IST