Just for that moment, Ramkumar Ramanathan was Superman. There was no cape, no secret mantra, nor a magic wand. Only his racquet, stretched far and wide behind him in the right hand. He’d approach the ball carefully, positioning himself to perfection. His body would start turning slightly until his head was facing 90 degrees to the left just to face the ball. The right arm behind him was locked in position, ready to make the kill.
And when the time was right, he’d spring into the air like the superhero before him. Soaring at least a meter forward, he’d reach the ball, and just like a slingshot being released from its trap, his body would twist to the left, mid-air. Chest, shoulder, right arm, racquet — all would move forward in unison to connect with the ball to unleash a powerful, accurate forehand. And if his opponent on the night Aljaz Bedene did reach the ball, there would be a feeble return. Or none at all.
That was the set point the 21-year-old won to claim the first set of his quarterfinal at the SDAT Tennis Stadium in Chennai. Up 6-5 in the first set tiebreaker, Bedene’s weak return sat up perfectly for Ramkumar to make his move. The powerful, top-spin layered forehand went straight to Bedene, whose backhand attempt simply rolled towards the net.
There was renewed vigour in the way Ramkumar played the first set of the game. There was a greater attacking intent compared to what was seen last night, when he beat Russia’s Alexander Kudryavtsev in their pre-quarterfinal tie of the Chennai Open. The baseliner’s forehands were strong, accurate, and well-timed. The ‘Superman’ shots were devastating.
Then there were the serves. At 40-30 in the fifth game of the match, Ramkumar served an ace down the T, making the set score 3-2. The speedometer subsequently flashed 201 kmph, the fastest he had served in the tournament so far. He’d do better a little later. Again at 40-30 but with Ramkumar trailing 3-4 in the second set, another serve down the T had the red digital metre clock read 203. But just as Superman had his weakness in Kryptonite, Ramkumar’s was low fitness levels.
Low on energy
He had resolved to retrieve more balls, and make more shots. But in the process, he started burning excess energy. There was also a heavy reliance on the forehands. So much so that when the ball would have been comfortable for a backhand, Ramkumar would run the extra few metres around just to catch it on the forehand.
Drained of energy, the mistakes came in a flurry. Suddenly the powerful forehands betrayed him. Shots went wide, long, and straight into the net.
In the seventh game of the second set, Ramkumar had two break points. The first shot was long, second into the net. Bedene on set point too was a case of a failed forehand — another weak effort into the net. Crucially, in his first service game of the third set, Ramkumar found himself needing to rescue a break point. But his attempt was again foiled by the net.
Bedene, meanwhile, modelled his game on consistency, as compared to Ramkumar’s powerplay. Though his serves were strong, his forehand shots relied on metronomic placement. Deep in the third set, already 4-2 up, the 26-year-old, who was the runner-up at last year’s tournament, played an elegantly placed forehand down the line.
The 45th ranked Slovenia-born Britisher’s movement too was commendable. Banking on superior fitness, he was well adapt to sprinting and reaching for shots as the match went deep. In fact, when Ramkumar started waning through fatigue, Bedene’s work rate started forcing the youngster to rush through shots and make unforced errors.
At the end of the match Bedene would accept his fitness as a key element for the win. “Ramkumar was not as fit as I was,” he said. But there was also an assertion about how devastating the Indian’s forehands were. “I had a few practice sessions with him when I was here last year. Since then there has been big progress on his forehand,” he added.
There was still loud cheering for Ramkumar as he made his way down the tunnel towards the players changing rooms, losing the game 7-6, 4-6, 3-6. For the locals, he wasn’t just another fallen player in the country’s most prized tennis tournament. Just as the trademark shot suggested, he was a hero to the fans.
Wawrinka marches into semis
Top seed Stanislas Wawrinka meanwhile beat fifth seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in straight sets to enter the semi-finals, winning 6-4, 6-4 against the Spaniard. Ranked fourth in the world, the Swiss has now won 20 consecutive sets at the Chennai Open, last dropping a set when he lost in the quarterfinals of the 2013 edition to Aljaz Bedene. Wawrinka will play third seed Frenchman Benoit Paire in the semi-finals.
Tense moments before contract expires
The future of Chennai Open remains uncertain as the contract between tournament owners IMG-Reliance and organisers Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) is scheduled to expire on January 10. Tournament director Tom Annear, who is serving at the position for the fourth consecutive time, however stated the decision regarding the contract renewal will be made on the same date.
Speaking ahead of the singles quarterfinals, Annear simply stated the decision may come as a surprise. “We’re going to know that answer on Sunday. It’s going to be a surprise to the media on that day. Or maybe after that day, maybe Monday. But you will find out soon enough,” he said.
In recent years the tournament has suffered financially due to lack of revenue generated through ticket sales. “It has not dropped over the years. It’s been constant but it has been much lower than we would have hoped,” said Annear, who went on to state the revenue through ticket sales at other ATP events reach around the 30-40% mark. “Even an increase by 20%, which may seem small, but is actually quite a big boost, would do well,” he added.
Meanwhile, Hiten Joshi, CEO of TNTA also remained tight-lipped about the decision. However he did state the association would like to continue hosting the tournament, which is the only major ATP event held in India and the South Asia region. “We still want to do it. For the interest of tennis too it’ll be good to have it,” he mentioned.
The last time the contract had expired was in 2013, when it was renewed for three years. This time around, incidentally, the expiry date falls on the same day as the final of the ongoing edition, the 20th at the SDAT Tennis Stadium in Chennai.