“Vamos! Vamos!” Joan Balcells was hoping his silent calls of ‘c’mon’ in the Spanish dialect would send a secret message across to his ward Ramkumar Ramanathan. The message he wanted to send from the players’ box of the SDAT Tennis Stadium in Chennai was to calm down and get more shots in. Tennis rules prevent on-court coaching, and so Balcells, who has been training Ramanathan for five years, had to make do with the hope that his charge would understand the hidden message.
India’s Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali too felt the same way. “His strength is his forehand and that was his weakness for one-and-a-half sets,” he says, describing how the youngster lost the first set against Russian Alexander Kudryavtsev in their pre-quarterfinal tie of the Chennai Open. “Ramkumar likes to run and play the shot on his forehand, but here he was trying too hard and was making too many unforced errors,” he adds.
Kudryavtsev stepped into the tie as the lucky loser after second seed Kevin Anderson pulled out from the tournament due to a recurring knee injury. And though the Russian, ranked 164 in the world, is 84 places higher than Ramanathan, the Indian was the one expected to win. “No way was he the underdog. But he looked very nervous at the start of the match. It was probably the gravity of the occasion. He just needed sometime to settle in the game, and then he started playing his shots,” Ali states.
Balcells too asserts that Ramanathan needed to focus to break down his opponent. “Russian players are normally very mentally strong. But if Ramkumar started playing shots and extending the rallies, he would be able to win crucial points,” explains the 40-year-old.
The first such crucial point came in the seventh game of the second set. Tied 3-3, Ramanathan forced Kudryavtsev’s serve into deuce. That game itself went into deuce five times. Kudryavtsev was attacking, but Ramanathan was hanging on. “I wanted to put every ball back into court because I knew he’d crack,” explains Ramanathan. The effort paid off. At break point for the local lad, Kudryavtsev’s second serve was called long. Game Ramanathan. Soon, set Ramanathan.
All of a sudden Ramanathan was dominating. The running forehands, his forte, that he spent the first set crashing into the net or hitting wayward, had a new spunk and tenacity to it. There was accuracy and there was power. And then there was the will and stamina he needed for the tireless running. There wasn’t much of a tactical change that he had to employ. It was simply getting his shots back into play. “That’s just what he had to do to win the crucial points,” Ali mentions.
Deep into the third set, with Ramanathan attempting to hold serve, Kudryavtsev worked his opponent from the forehand side, then to the backhand side, and back to forehand. On the final shot Ramanathan stretched to his right, attempting an audacious lob. Kudryavtsev seemed sure the ball would fall out, but luck had given in to Ramanathan’s protest. It was on the line.
There seemed to be not much wrong the youngster could do once he regained his nerves. Taking forward the confidence from his regained form, Ramanathan started to go for stronger serves. Though not known for a powerful service game, he did manage a strong 199 kmph stunner. The second serves too were getting faster. “I felt confident taking risks. I started going for my second serves as well,” he claims.
The renewed form, which saw him comprehensively outwit Daniel Gimeno-Traver in the first round of the main draw, had Ramanathan rush through the games. That’s when Balcells started another round of ‘Vamos!’ This time the secret message was for Ramanathan to slow down the pace. The score was 5-4 to Ramanathan, who was to serve for the match. “I figured that I had to slow down a bit and not rush on,” he states. The patience with which he increased his rate of returning shots was employed again. Kudryavtsev tried again to work Ramanathan, but the youngster held on, taking advantage of his superior fitness levels. Kudryavtsev meanwhile was running out of steam. And then came the unforced error. The Russian’s backhand did not go beyond the net. The final Vamos was drowned by the cheer of the crowd.
Ramanathan won 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, to become only the third Indian singles player, after Leander Paes and Somdev Devvarman to reach the quarterfinal of the tournament.
Partner ill, Paes pulls out
Multiple Grand Slam winner Leander Paes was forced to withdraw from the doubles tie of the Chennai Open after his partner Spanish partner Marcel Granollers failed to recover in time from an illness. The second seeded pair was scheduled to play Austin Krajicek and Benoit Paire for a spot in the semi-finals of the doubles event. Paes and Granollers, who was the 42-year-old’s 100th doubles partner, had previously beaten Taro Daniel and John Millman in straight sets to reach the last eight of the tournament. As a result of the withdrawal, Krajicek and Paire get a walkover to the next round where they will play an Indian pair — the winners of match between Somdev Devvarman and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, and Sriram Balaji and Ramkumar Ramanathan. ENS