Over the last 16 years, the Chennai Open, in all its avatars, and the city’s tennis fans have come to resemble a long-married couple.
The heady romance of the early days, when everything was new and exciting — even the fetishised Indian-ness, the elephants, the embroidered shawls, the vermillion marks — has faded. There’s an easy comfort now: at its best, it’s a rediscovery of the familiar joy of tennis in winter; at its worst, it’s apathy.
But the threat of the relationship ending — negotiations for a renewal of the tournament’s contract with IMG are ongoing — causes one to see the event for what it really is.
It’s an exposure to some of the world’s best tennis players at a reasonable price.
For the city’s tennis fans, who have known intimately the Krishnans and the Amritrajs, it’s the continuation of a rich tradition; from here springs the tennis-intelligent fan who Chennai is known for. And also from here springs the prospective player.
Indeed for the Indian player, the Chennai Open is a godsend. He can make a name, like Somdev Devvarman did with his run to the final in 2009, and catapult himself forward. But even for those who don’t make it as far, the opportunity to experience top-flight tennis from up close is invaluable: hitting with a top-50 player, watching how he manages his body and mind when training and under pressure is the sort of education that costs a lot on tour; it’s inexpensive and accessible in Chennai.
It isn’t known if the danger of this being the last year prompts a better turnout on the first three days (the second half, with the top singles players and the Indian doubles stars in action, has always been well-attended). But there’s the possibility of seeing at least two intriguing narratives play out in the early stages — Devvarman’s and Yuki Bhambri’s.
Devvarman was ranked as high as No. 62 last July, but a surgery-enforced lay-off has seen the 27-year-old slide to No. 663. He went six tournaments since his return this July without a win before managing two victories in Charlottesville in late October.
Devvarman’s path back to where he was goes through Chennai, a city he has lived in. He has the Czech, Jan Hajek, first. If he gets past the World No. 106, he’ll play Tomas Berdych, the top seed, who is already in the second round thanks to a bye.
Bhambri, 20, has shown signs this year of making the transition from a world-class junior to a competitor on the men’s tour. Although he is currently ranked No. 217, he broke into the top 200 in 2012. The first-round match against Robin Haase, World No. 56, could be the making of Bhambri. He beat Karol Beck, then ranked just outside the top 100, last time; but a win in this edition will be far tougher.
It’s difficult to look beyond the top four seeds — Berdych, Tipsarevic, Cilic, and Wawrinka — for the potential champion.
The timing of the Chennai Open, just after the off-season, makes the top players vulnerable, for they are yet to find their rhythm. But although one of the top two seeds has crashed out by the second round in nine of the 16 editions, one of the top two seeds has won the tournament eight times.