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Vol. XXXII No. 12, October 1-15, 2022

The WTA Chennai Open is here to stay

-- by Partab Ramchand

The city has been deprived of key international tennis ever since the ATP Chennai Open – the only ATP tournament in South Asia – shifted to Pune in 2018. So it was with great enthusiasm that fans of the sport welcomed the recently concluded WTA Chennai Open, which was held at the Nungambakkam stadium from September 12 to 18, 2022. It must be said that the long wait was worth it, for the WTA Chennai Open provided first-rate fare. In the words of Hiten Joshi, CEO of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA), the standard of tennis played was “very high and the matches were highly competitive.” It certainly drew a buoyant response from the tennis-starved public, for the crowds were comparable to that once present at the ATP Chennai Open.

“It was important to get the buzz back in the city,’’ said Vijay Amritraj, President of the TNTA. The Chennai-born tennis star – one of the best tennis players the country has produced – played a major role in bringing the tournament to Chennai. He hopes that the WTA Chennai Open will spark an Indian revival in the sport. There was a time when India was a force to reckon with in the Davis Cup and her players were good enough to make a strong impact even in Grand Slam events. Right now, however, Indian tennis is going through lean times. There isn’t an Indian singles player, male or female, ranked in the world’s top 200. And among women, Sania Mirza remains the last player to have breached the top 100 in singles – a feat achieved more than 15 years ago. Under the circumstances, if the conduct of the WTA Chennai Open can spark interest among young girls, it would have more than served its purpose.

At the end of the week-long competition, it could be said that the high standard of play and intense competition among some of the finest players on the WTA circuit must certainly have inspired young tennis talent in the country. The roster of players included at least one who had made the final or semifinal in Grand Slam events and had been ranked among the top five in the world rankings. There were also players who had performed admirably at the four Majors.

When the WTA Chennai Open began, the player who garnered the most attention was Alison Riske-Amritraj. Not only was she the top seed and the highest ranked player (29) taking part, but she had a connection with the city being married to Stephen, the son of Anand Amritraj, former Davis Cup player and Indian coach. Predictably, much was expected from her. However, she lost in a major upset in the opening round to Russia’s Anastasia Gasanova, ranked no. 147. Throughout the tournament, there were a number of matches that went to three sets, underlining the sheer intensity of the competition. At the end of it all, it was Linda Fruhvirtova who was crowned champion. The WTA Chennai Open could well be the starting point for the 17-year-old Czech player to confirm her status as a rising star in women’s tennis. In completing a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over third-seeded Magda Linette of Poland, Linda showed great composure and fighting skills in winning her maiden WTA crown. Her radiant smile as she received her trophy and held it aloft lit up the night sky and made her an instant hit with the few thousands present at the stadium. Ranked 130, she was an unknown quantity when the tournament started but now assured of breaking into the top 100. 

The Indian challenge was rather short-lived. Ankit Raina, India’s No. 1, went down tamely 0-6, 1-6 to fourth seed Tatjana Maria of Germany. Karman Thandi, however, gave the spectators something to cheer about when she upset the No. 8 seed Chloe Paquet 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the first round. It was a creditable win for the 24-year-old from Delhi ranked 359, for she got the better of an opponent 250 places above her. That, however, remained the extent of her challenge – in the next round, she went down fighting 2-6, 6-7 to Eugenie Bouchard of Canada. Karman, in fact, led 5-3 in the second set, but she fluffed two set points and was never in the match thereafter. Bouchard, a finalist at Wimbledon and a semifinalist at the Australian Open and the French Open (all in 2014), was ranked as high as No. 5 at the end of that year; but injuries and a drop in form meant that she had to be the recipient of a wild card to play at Chennai. Bouchard was a crowd favourite but she lost in the quarterfinals to Nadia Podoroska of Argentina 1-6, 6-4, 6-2. The Argentine player, in her turn, went down in the last four to Linda.

At the end of it all, it mattered little to the exuberant fans that the two original top seeds Caroline Garcia and Elise Mertens withdrew from the tournament. While ­Garcia of France, who made the semifinals of the US Open, pulled out of the event due to scheduling challenges, Mertens of Belgium was out due to injury. All said and done, the tournament was a success and Vijay Amritraj could not hide his joy. “To have a tournament of this magnitude in my hometown feels very special. When I took over as TNTA president in 2018, one of the goals was to get top-level tennis back in Chennai,” he said. There is little doubt that the
WTA Chennai Open is here to stay.

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