You have to love the Chennai Open Tennis championship. It has a unique character that can only be dreamt of at, say, Roland Garros or Flushing Meadows. For, it is only here at the mildly cavernous SDATN Tennis Stadium, sitting at the top of one of the stands, with the vagabond wintry breeze undoing your carefully-combed hair, you can mentally kick yourself for not wearing the windcheater especially when the accepted wisdom is that the winter in the city has been pretty pronounced this year, while right there at the centre of the court a player, probably from Czech Republic or Ukraine, is pulling out from the contest due to —- listen to this — exhaustion from extreme heat.
No, this is not a joke. The joke, of course, what we take to be winter here, and what the winter actually is in the rest of the world.
But come to think of it, the Chennai Open tournament, in its first four years, was played in April, and we should deem it as our fortune that no player perished due to spontaneous internal combustion, which the summer heat in these parts is entirely capable of triggering. During those editions of the tournament, I have seen players sweating so profusely that some of them could have been mistaken for a fizzy fountain at a forlorn plaza.
But we journos, most of us hardy men steeled by our commitment to the profession, did not complain about the heat, we just went ahead and covered the tournament, by working out a simple ploy, which was to — pay close attention here as I am about to reveal what is a handy technique that can be of use to the humanity at large too — simply not step out of the fully air-conditioned media centre. This, of course, meant we couldn’t watch the match, but we honestly compensated for it by writing bigger reports.
Those early years of this tournament were also the early years of internet in these parts. And that meant we didn’t know enough to browse much on the free computers on offer at the media centre, and most of the time we were reading missives from Nigerian princes or Ugandan industrialists, whose emails offering truckloads of money predate internet itself.
Another byplay we reporters indulged in was guessing the identity of the players in the court. This was not as easy as it may seem to some of you, especially if the players were Cristiano Caratti and Vincenzo Santoparde, who faced off against each other in 1998. We reporters covered the match without ever being reasonably confident as to who was Caratti and who was Santoparde. In the end, we chose to ignore the match altogether in our reports, but if we had been any truthful we should have probably written something like: ‘The first round contest between Caratti and Santoparde ended in a lopsided 6-4, 6-0, with one of them handsomely beating the heck out of the other.’
But over the years, Chennai Open has been well served by big stars, whose identity could never be in question. Some of the big names seen here include Boris Becker, Patrick Rafter, Carlos Moya and, of course, Rafael Nadal. The magician from Mallorca, as Nadal is referred to as now, didn’t get past the first round in the singles of 2004 (he later made it to the finals in 2008). But if were asked to recall something abiding from those fleeting few moments that we got to see Nadal in 2004, something that I can tell my grandkids that I had seen first-hand, well, it has to be this: In the first set, with the score on 5-6, Nadal’s serve was on test. He had to hold it to stay in the set. The tension was palpable. Nadal wiped his brows and the sweat drops seemed to evaporate even before they fell on the asphalt turf. He bent his back purposefully and bounced the ball in his right hand, and, from the corner of his right eye, surveyed his opponent at the end of the other baseline and the court, and at the moment of throwing up the ball for the serve, Nadal stopped abruptly, and, rather instinctively, reached for his underwear that seemed to have been stuck in his butt crack. Well, not now. Not then. Nadal has never been able to find the right-fitting underwear.
But Chennai Open is not just about international names, plenty of local talent has also added lustre to the tournament if not with their play, then at least with their presence. Leander Paes. Mahesh Bhupathi. Rohan Bopanna. The Krishnans. The Amritrajs. Talking of whom, I’ll end this piece with a remarkable record that belongs to one of the Amritrajs.
Not Don Budge, not Rod laver, not Pete Sampras, not Roger Federer, not even Sargis Sargsian, but the city’s very own Ashok Amritraj is the only one in the world ever to have been the Junior Wimbledon runner-up who went on to attain the biggest laurel that will probably remain a dream for other players: Produce an English film starring Rajnikanth.
Now, that may be worthy of 100 Grand Slams!