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Vol. XXVI No. 20, February 1-15, 2017

South Asia’s lone ATP event

By Partab Ramchand

Another edition of the Chennai Open has gone by and going by the participation of some of the leading players in the world, the intensive media coverage and the encouraging attendance at the Nungam-bakkam stadium through the week, it is clear that the only ATP event in South Asia continues to remain popular.

It is now 20 years since the Chennai Open was first conducted in the city. In 1997, it was known as the Gold Flake Open, after the sponsors. Subsequently, it was known for some time as the Tata Open. But for over a decade now it has been supported by the Tamil Nadu Government and conducted with the support of the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu and a consortium of sponsors.

Patrick_Rafter_2015Patrick Rafter.

It has been a permanent feature of the city’s sporting ethos and is so indissolubly linked with Chennai that it is sometimes forgotten that the inaugural competition was held in New Delhi in 1996. The ATP Tour organisers, however, were not very happy with the conduct of the tournament and the lacklustre crowd response in Delhi. Chennai was always going to be the alternative choice, given the city’s status as the tennis capital of the country, being the home of the Krishnans and the Amritrajs and having a ready world class facility in the Nungambakkam stadium. Still, at the preliminary press conference held to assess the city’s readiness to host the prestigious event, ATP Tour organisers asked local reporters and officials all sorts of questions regarding the weather, the city’s tennis culture, the facilities at the venue and if the matches would draw a sizeable crowd. Impressed by what they saw and heard the officials gave the go-ahead to Chennai to host the event.

The tournament was held from April 7 to 13, 1997 and by the end of the week there was little doubt that it was here to stay – and, in fact, it has stayed the course for 20 years. The ATP Tour officials were very happy with the co-operation they received from the local officials and everything went as smooth as silk.

As has been the trend over the last two decades the attendance was thin on the first two or three days but picked up thereafter and on the final day the stadium was packed. The capacity crowd also saw a classic duel for supremacy between Mikhail Tillstrom of Sweden and Alex Radulescu of Romania which went to three sets before the former emerged champion. Tillstrom, in fact, entered the final the following year too but went down to reigning US Open champion Patrick Rafter of Australia.

Kolkata:Legendary Boris Becker.

After being held in April for the first few years, the tournament was shifted to the more pleasant weather of January. This also meant that as one of the season openers it gained in importance and attracted several leading players who saw it as ideal preparation for the Australian Open. In fact, in 2014 when he won the Australian Open for his first Grand Slam singles title, Stan Wawrinka made a special mention of his victory at the Chennai Open and how it gave him the confidence to do well.

Over the last two decades, several top-ten stars, Grand Slam champions and reigning Wimbledon champions have taken part in the competition, giving it a significant status among ATP Tour events. In 1997 the reigning Wimbledon champion and runner-up Richard Krajicek and Malivai Washington headed the list of participants. Some of the leading players of the last 20 years, like Carlos Moya, Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic, Janko Tipsarevic and, of course, Rafter and Wawrinka, have gone on to win the title. But perhaps the most memorable scene would still be the chorus of “Boris, Boris’’ that echoed through the stadium as Becker made his way to the court in 1998. Nine years after the legendary German had won the last of three Wimbledon singles titles he remained as popular as ever and the atmosphere when he played was electric. Unfortunately his challenge did not last very long as he lost his second match, much to the disappointment of his legion of admirers in the city.

wawrinka_head_16 copyStan Wawrinka.

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