In the absence of any of the big four,Russias Nikolay Davydenko will lead a Chennai Open field thats short on crowd-pullers. Can the quality of tennis make up for it,asks our corerespondent
OVER the last two years,the first week of January in Chennai has been spent cheering Rafael Nadal on. He never did manage to win the top prize,but the famous pirate pants and fist pumps were by far the biggest draw at the season-opening ATP tour event at the Nungambakkam Stadium. He had played in Indias southern metropolis back in the years when he was an unkown teenager,struggling to qualify for the singles event,and managing a fair bit of success in the doubles,but 2007 and 2008 were events that he dominated by just being there.
Nadal alone had ensured that the world was tuned in to this event there is always curiosity as to how the big players fare at the start of a new season. This time,the tennis worlds new No 1 has picked a higher prize-money event in Doha. Roger Federer,Andy Roddick and Andy Murray also headline the same tournament,while the only big name missing from that list Novak Djokovic begins preparations for the defence of his Australian Open crown in a tour event in Brisbane.
The Chennai Open appears to be a poor country cousin by comparison,with a field thats short on crowd-pullers. The organisers will be hoping the quality of tennis will make up for it. With seven top-50 players and double that in the top-100 as part of the action,the fare on view will be worth more than just a fleeting glance,but the absence of a top draw something the organisers had managed to get in the past few editions will be felt.
Right now,thats hardly cause to complain though. In 2008,sponsorship glitches,security concerns and meagre participation hit Indian tennis,with cancellation and postponement becoming the rule rather than the exception. Now,at last,there will be some tennis.
While young blood made its presence felt all through 2008,thanks to the likes of Nadal,Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro,the Chennai Open features more of the old brigade some past their prime,and a few late bloomers. Top seed Nikolay Davydenko of Russia,ranked No 5 in the world,is 27 years old and has taken the slow and steady route to tenniss elite,coming into prominence many years after he signed the pro forms. He reached the final of the season-ending Masters Cup in Shanghai in 2008,and will hope to pick up from where he left off last season.
Carlos Moya,32,is far from the days when he lifted the Roland Garros trophy (1998),and is now content with enjoying his tennis. Nevertheless,his fan-following in India remains,and he will be one of the crowd favourites on his seventh visit to the country.
Rainer Schuettler,32,may also be part of the veterans section in Chennai,but the German has shown he isnt the one to be taken lightly. Schuettler came out of nowhere to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals last season,an absolute dark horse,since he hadnt made it past the second round in his previous 13 Slams. That proved to be the years breakthrough,and by the end of 2008,he had improved 100 ranking positions to his current 33rd spot.
Croatian Ivo Karlovic also appears to be playing his best late in his tennis career,and will stand out as a potential party-pooper for title aspirants,and not just because of his 610 frame.
The up-and-coming set,though,do have a couple of talented representatives in 23-year-old Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka and 20-year-old Marin Cilic of Croatia. Playing their own brand of vibrant tennis,they will be confident of taking the challenge to their more experienced adversaries.