Nineteen is the new Twenty

They are celebrating 20 years at the Chennai Open, which is currently on at the capacious Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium. This is a remarkable achievement, especially considering the fact that tennis is still an elite sport here and also it is actually only 19 years since the tournament started.

Quite apparently, they are nominally tabulating the tournament held at New Delhi in 1996 as the first edition of Chennai Open. This may seem weird in normal scheme of things, but not in the world of sports. For instance, the equestrian events at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics were held at Stockholm, located just a stone’s throw and two continents away. The equestrian events were shifted to Stockholm based on, one would believe, demand from quiz masters looking for ‘trick questions’. And closer home, the Indian Premier League, as befitting its name, has been held at South Africa and UAE.

Anyway, coming back to Chennai Open, its story, regardless of whether it is 20 or still in its teens, is indeed interesting and inspiring. Right from day one, it was clear that the tournament would catch on like fire. And that was entirely because it was held, in its early years, in April. Summer in Chennai is extreme human rights violation as a weather pattern.

The tournament was shifted to January as there were numerous complaints that it was impossible to last even two sets in Chennai’s heat. And those complaining were just the spectators in the stands. As far as the players were concerned, well, the winner of the tournament was most literally the last man standing.

Boris Becker, who was here for the 1998 edition of the tournament, ever the sensitive persona he was, left a heart-felt ‘Thank You’ note under the door of Gerard Solves’ room for defeating him (Becker) in the second round itself.

Of course, this is not true. But on that April night, Becker did look like that if he were to play one more match in Chennai’s heat, he would return to Germany mostly in a vapourised state. (“Nobody got killed out there. No, wait. I was almost”).

Over the years, Chennai Open has managed to draw many stars including big names like Rafael Nadal, Patrick Rafter, Pat Cash, Yevgeny Kafelnikov. But the popular attractions have been —- mind you, Chennai fans are sports-loving and extremely knowledgeable — those shining talents from the local film world. Seriously, one of the regular events at the tournament is the ‘exhibition show ’ in between matches, wherein Paes/Bhupathi/Amritraj and a top player trade fun rallies with any two Kollywood actors exhibiting the same tennis skills as that of sea otter.

The other night, Tamil actors Arya and Vishnu, who, it should be said, is no stranger to sports as he has had previous experience playing Ranji Trophy cricketer role in one of his movies, were at the centre court alongside Paes and Stan Wawrinka. It was nice to see two top tennis players in harmless byplay with two up and coming actors for a bit of fun, and in the process send out the important collective message to all youngsters: If you are a star you should stay committed and not be afraid to make yourself a silly ass in full public glare.

Staying with Wawrinka. He was one of the best players on the tennis circuit in 2014; he had wins against, among others, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and also helped his country claim the Davis Cup. He is the top seed here and the tournament’s defending champion. He has one of the best backhands in the business. But there is a chink in his sporting armour, and it is—- this was evident from his play in Chennai — he does not play well the lofted-shot with the cricket bat.

Making tennis players hit balls into the stands with a cricket bat is another of popular routines this year. Wawrinka seems to be a player who can just about clear the in-field. But who knows, with a bit of practice and some shrewd strategy, like getting his father become a selector, he could still make it to the Indian cricket team.

Thanks to the Chennai Open, the impressive Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium, which was built for the SAF Games, has also been well-served, and over the years, the concrete sports facility has been a proud witness to many monumental fights, the most memorable one, of course, featuring Prashanth and a bunch of hooligans in Kann Edhirey Thondrinal.

The stadium is also featured in another Tamil film, where it is shown as hosting a tennis tournament. And, for all we know, the Chennai Open organisers probably included that tournament to get 20 years of tennis here!