It was a day of mixed results for India at the Delhi Challenger, where the best news perhaps came from a loss than a win. Somdev Devvarman laboured past wildcard Karunuday Singh and, by the end of the day, was the only Indian left in the men’s singles draw.
Still, it was 19-year old Ramkumar Ramanathan’s tight loss to Ilija Bozoljac that proved to be the most entertaining game, and was certainly the one to take the most positives from for a fan of Indian tennis, especially after Yuki Bhambri was upset just hours previously.
It could not have been set up better for Devvarman in the first round. The slowness of the center court and his opponent’s inability to find either depth or consistency on his groundstrokes meant that most points were determined by unforced errors, with Karunuday blinking first. Devvarman bossed the first set 6-2 but inexplicably faded thereafter.
Devvarman was broken thrice but managed to break Karunuday four times in a second set where the tennis was poor and the umpiring worse. Eventually, Devvarman crawled over the line in the second with a last gasp break, nicking the set 7-5 and with it the match.
Next up on Court One was Bhambri, who took on 19-year old French talent Lucas Pouille, ranked 187 in the world. All seemed well in the early stages as Bhambri comfortably picked up the first set 6-2 but he went flat immediately after.
Pouille ran up a 3-0 lead in the second and though Bhambri broke back, it was apparent that the fizz had gone out of his game. Bhambri later admitted that an abdominal strain meant that he was only serving at ’60 per cent’ right through the game and that fatigue was a factor for he had been playing non-stop for a few months until Delhi. The drop in quality of his service game cost him the set 7-5.
There was something of a recovery for Bhambri in the third as he dug deep to cull out a break but the sixth seed botched his attempt to serve out the match. Pouille saved three match points, broke Bhambri and held his own serve to turn the table on Bhambri. One last break of service gave Pouille the match.
A fairly clamorous crowd had watched local lad Bhambri play but the 2-6, 7-5, 7-5 loss seemed to have disheartened most spectators. Those who stayed on, though, were treated to an exhibition of hitting from Ramkumar and Ilija Bozoljac. It was more or less expected that Ramkumar would not hold back on two of his primary weapons, the serve and the forehand and that is how it proved to be.
Still, for all the power Ramkumar was imparting – he clearly has the bigger serve and forehand as compared to Devvarman or Bhambri – his talent is quite raw. As powerful as his forehand can become, Ramkumar still mostly employs the sliced backhand, a defensive option at best.
His movement too was perhaps a little clumsy, evidenced mostly when he rushed the net, dunking several volleys into the net mainly because he was not balanced when making the shot. He also needed little invitation to unwind on his forehand side, which keeps the opponent honest, but also becomes a bit predictable.
Bozoljac, at 28, is a veteran of the Challenger circuit. The six feet four inches tall Serb combined power-hitting with a canniness that comes from preying on the lopsided game of the players that populate the nether rungs of the tennis hierarchy.
To add to that, Bozoljac is in red hot form too, having won the Kolkata Challenger last week.
Expectedly, Bozoljac made all the right moves. He directed traffic to Ramkumar’s backhand. He served big to ensure he wouldn’t be drawn into rallies. He invited Ramkumar to the net with drop shots and passed him with ease. It worked like a charm as Bozoljac went 6-2, 4-2 up in little time. Ramkumar didn’t switch playing styles or back down despite the scoreline and Bozoljac, little by little, began to feel the heat. Ramkumar levelled and then took the set in the tie-break 7-5.
Though he went a break down in the third, Ramkumar kept unreeling the big serves and crunching forehands. He would draw level and even have a few break point opportunities of his own.
Eventually Bozoljac proved just a little too powerful, a little too experienced, nicking the contest 6-2, 6(5)-7, 6-4. But the Serbian had seen something. He stopped to applaud his opponent, almost 10 years his junior, after the win.