The red T-shirt with the words ‘Stan the Man’ boldly emblazoned down the front cleared all doubts. It really was the familiar sight Chennai starts every year with — Stanislas Wawrinka hitting his patent power strokes from the baseline on the centre court of the SDAT Tennis Stadium. Naturally, all last-minute activity, just hours before the opening match of the main draw could take place at the Chennai Open, had temporarily ceased. If time could, it did stand still for the Swiss.
The fame and awe came with the reputation booming off his lusty practice hits. After all, the reigning champion for the last two years had followed up his Chennai championship win with a Grand Slam title. The 2014 win was followed immediately by the Australian Open victory, his first Grand Slam. Last year, he denied Novak Djokovic a Career Slam by beating him in the final of the French Open. Subsequently, he finished the year ranked fourth in the world for the second time, behind only Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer. In turn, the 30-year-old strengthened his claim to breaking the stronghold of tennis’ ‘Big Four’ — with Rafael Nadal always in the mix.
Winning the Chennai Open in the last two seasons provided him with a sense of momentum getting into the new calendar year. Though he did also win the tournament in 2011 and is the most successful singles player at the championship, he is now in a position to become the first player to win the ATP tour event three times in a row. And in all likeliness, Wawrinka is well placed to achieve that feat. The gap in class between Wawrinka and the rest of the field is yawning with Kevin Anderson, the next best at No. 12.
Over the years, the list of marquee players at the event has steadily dried up. A far cry from the inaugural year when Wimbledon champ Richard Krajicek and runner up MaliVai Washington had lined up at the Nungambakkam Stadium.
Consequently, the tournament has followed the recurrent theme of throwing up at least one unpredictable finalist each year for the past 10 years, barring the 2010 final between Wawrinka and Marin Cilic. Wild card entrant Somdev Devvarman’s unprecedented run to the 2009 final where he lost to Marin Cilic was memorable for Indians while the highly favoured Nadal’s final loss against Mikhail Youzhny came as a surprise in the 2008 edition. Even Wawrinka’s win last year came against Aljaz Bedene, the first ever qualifier to make it to the final, while in 2014 the Swiss beat seventh seeded Frenchman Édouard Roger-Vasselin – both wins coming in straight sets.
This year too, the draw has paved the way for an unpredictable championship match. Wawrinka is presumably expected to occupy one of the last two berths, given his vast list of achievements compared to the rest of the field.
Second seeded Anderson, ranked 12th in the world, comes to his maiden Chennai Open on the back of his best season as a professional — which included three final appearances in ATP tour events, winning just one. That was his third overall win on tour in his career, along with eight total finishes as losing finalist.
Following him in the seedings is Frenchman Benoit Paire, who is currently at his best ranking of 19 in the world, an improvement by 107 places since the beginning of 2015. Like Anderson, he too found last season as his best so far in terms of achievements, winning his only ATP tour event in singles, the Swedish Open, in July. Incidentally, his first ever major win in the doubles came at the Chennai Open in 2013 when he partnered Wawrinka to the title.
As for the fourth seed, who will also receive a bye in the first round of the singles is Roberto Bautista Agut. The Spaniard had just two runner-up finishes at the ATP events last year.
Meanwhile, the other two fast movers among the rankings are Croatian Borna Coric, who is the only teenager in the top 50, at 44, and last year’s Chennai Open finalist Aljaz Bedene, who was ranked 156 at the beginning of 2015 and is now 45th in the world.
The absence of 2013 champion Janko Tipsarevic, who hasn’t yet recovered from a knee injury, and India’s top player Yuki Bhambri, who is out with tennis elbow, further deteriorates the lineup.
Wawrinka on top
Wawrinka in turn, sits on top of the Chennai Open perch. He has been at this position since 2014. Apart from him and Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi (who’s lining up with Gilles Muller), no other player present at the present edition has achieved Grand Slam success. Yet, he won’t be taking the event too lightly. Of late, it’s been a lucky omen of sorts. His last two titles here led him to Grand Slam success. A third title in India and then at the majors though will go well beyond just keeping him as a crowd favourite here. It’ll give him a serious push to break into the Big Four. Perhaps even give him a place on that prestigious list altogether.
Match of the day
Borna Coric vs Marcel Granollers
Granollers played a strong shot which looked out of reach of Coric’s forehand. It was one of those shots that would normally bring out a feeble return – if there is a return at all. Coric though had another idea. A rash, yet delicately timed hit back ended up as an equally powerful cross-court shot that sent the world number 82 reeling to his own forehand side. The Spaniard’s return was the expected weak return that would fall just ahead of the net. And Coric had anticipated the return and with soft, delicate hands, played the perfect drop shot volley. That was the point that broke Granollers serve in the deciding set.
It wasn’t that the 19-year-old Croatian, ranked 44 in the world, had dominated the match though. He won the first set in the tiebreaker and lost the second 6-2. He broke Granollers’ serve to go 3-1 up in third. Then, it was just a matter of holding his own serve – even that proved to be a tough task. Serving for the match, Coric squandered two match points. But he held his nerve and finished off with an ace, winning 7-6, 2-6, 6-4.
Wawrinka/Garcia-Lopez vs Paes/Granollers
The doubles match-up will be the one to watch out for. Being an Olympic year, the prospect of Wawrinka teaming up with Roger Federer to compete at Rio will require the Swiss to increase his doubles games before the quadrennial event. Incidentally, Wawrinka also has an Olympic gold to his name, partnering Federer to win the doubles medal in 2008.
In turn Paes, who also has an Olympic medal to his credit — a bronze in the singles of the 1996 Atalanta Games — is looking to compete in his seventh Olympic Games. Though he is competing in Chennai without his prospective partner for the quadrennial event, Rohan Bopanna, the evergreen veteran’s style of play and fitness will be crucial to the run up for Rio.