Canas cruises; Bhupathi, Mirnyi bow out
By Nirmal Shekar
CHENNAI, JAN. 1. Perched on a dusty, fibre-glass seat that's perhaps not been sat upon since the last day of the last Gold Flake Open in January 2001 and has taken the worst of the North East monsoon in recent weeks, suddenly the title of an old, old Harold Robbins novel crossed one's mind at the Tata Open on Tuesday.
Where love has gone?
Where, Oh, where, this sports loving city's seemingly undying love for the genteel sport of tennis has gone? Where, for heaven's sake, are the passionate men, women, boys and girls who used to risk their vocal chords in the cause of their favourite stars?
As Guillermo Canas, the top-seeded Argentine with arms that might have been cut out of the largest tree in the Brazilian rain forest, wielded a rather hefty axe to chop off the Swiss player George Bastl's resolve for a 6-4, 6-2 first round victory, the unsinkable feeling was that Chennai's long and celebrated love affair with tennis has ended.
Or, has it, really? Perhaps not. It's just that love needs a bit of pampering. It's a sure affront to love when it is taken for granted. And in the context of this tournament, it needs a sort of trigger, something to stoke the fires of fans's passion.
Simply put, what is missing this year is a charismatic star such as Boris Becker or Pat Rafter or Carlos Moya who can act as the trigger. This much is obvious from the number of empty seats at the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium on a holiday.
And the meagre offering - if you can call it that - from the two Indian players in singles has not helped either. A day after Leander Paes's quick exit, his doubles partner Mahesh Bhupathi won exactly the same number of games (four) in his first round match. Jiri Vanek from the Czech Republic consumed the lethargic Bhupathi like a shark having breakfast - in one big lump - for a 6-2, 6-2 victory.
But, then, perhaps, from another point of view, from the connoisseur's standpoint, the Tata Open is really not missing much. For the first time since Pat Rafter in 1998, here is a top seed - Guillermo Canas - who seems to have come in with an open air ticket, somebody who truly means business.
And from what little digging he was forced to do by the talented Bastl, it was obvious that the sultry Argentine, world ranked 14, has what it takes to win this week. It is going to take a good player playing very good tennis to beat Canas here.
Having watched the 24-year old Argentine beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the third round at Wimbledon last June, this writer knew that the young man was capable of playing top class tennis. It was merely a question of whether he was well-prepared for what is the first event of the new season.
In the event, there wasn't any sign of rustiness in Canas's game this evening as he broke down Bastl's resistance in the first set with sledge-hammer forehands and pinpoint backhands.
The serve is a huge weapon too and he has the ability to uncork the big one at the slightest hint of trouble.
The first set witnessed tennis of sustained quality. The ones with tickets who chose not to turn up in time for this match surely missed something.
There were some breathtaking points worthy of a final and these only went to underline the depth in men's tennis.
It was as fierce a contest as one might have expected to see in the first round from the moment Bastl staved off two breakpoints to hold to 3-3.
But when Bastl put down a revealing double fault in the 10th game, Canas knew it was his big chance.
And the top seed stepped on the pedal there, hitting a superb forehand approach and following that up with a forehand crosscourt volley. It gave him two setpoints. But he needed only one, for Bastl sent down another double fault.
Compared to the first, the second set was not much of a contest. For Canas broke serve in the second game with an acrobatic volley worthy of a Rafter and his progress to the second round from there was interrupted only briefly when Bastl chose to contest a late call that gave the Argentine matchpoint.
``The first step in a tournament is always tough. I played a great match. It feels great,'' said Canas. ``I was nervous at the start because I was the top seed and I was playing after almost two months.''
Another young player of whom much was expected here - Max Mirnyi from Belarus, the fifth seed - was found wanting this evening in the face of some wonderfully attractive attacking tennis from Paradorn Srichapan of Thailand.
On form and ranking, one of Asia's best singles players now, Srichaphan mixed things up superbly to beat the beanpole from Belarus 6-3, 6-3.
Mirnyi promised a fightback after losing the first set but Srichaphan hit some lovely returns to push fifth seed to the brink in the eighth game of the second set. Down 0-40, Mirnyi fought his way back from the triple breakpoint situation only to lose serve on the fourth.
Srichaphan confidently served out the match, wrapping it up with a delightful backhand winner down the line.
``Once I won the first set, I was confident. Leander and Mahesh have done so much in Asia. We have to have more Asian players doing well,'' said Srichaphan who found a place in the main draw only when Vladimir Voltchkov withdrew.
Hardly a surprise
If Mirnyi's loss was a surprise, you could hardly say that of Bhupathi's defeat. A three-time Grand Slam champion in doubles, Bhupathi has hardly played singles at this level in recent times.
He played just two matches all of last year.
Given this background, it would be unfair to say that Bhupathi was a major disappointment this evening.
He is, essentially, a doubles specialist and he did not even play Davis Cup singles last year.
Against Vanek, Bhupathi had his odd moments, fighting off a few breakpoints here, hitting a superb return winner than, firing a big serve now and again. But these were not enough to make a difference.
Meanwhile, the 1999 Chennai champion who had to qualify for the event this year - Zimbabwe's Byron Black - was beaten in the first round. Ivo Karlovic of Croatia beat Black 7- 6(2), 6-3 even as the Israeli Noam Okun pulled off a minor upset, packing off the eighth seeded Dane Kristian Pless 6-2, 6-4.
Singles: First round: Guillermo Canas (Arg) bt George Bastl (Sui) 6-4, 6-2; Noam Okun (Isr) bt Kristian Pless (Den) 6-2, 6-4; Ivo Karlovic (Cro) bt Byron Black (Zim) 7- 6(2), 6-3; Paradorn Srichaphan bt Max Mirnyi 6-3, 6-3; Jiri Vanek bt Mahesh Bhupathi 6-2, 6-2.
lMonday's Doubles results: first round: Juan Balcells (ESP)/George Bastl (Sui) bt Devin Bowen (USA)/Ashley Fisher (Aus) 2-6, 6-1, 6-2; Arnold Lucas/Guillermo Canas (Arg) bt Michal Tabara (Cze)/Jiri Vanek (Cze) 4-6, 7-5, 6-3; Byron Black (Zim)/Fabrice Santoro (Fra) bt Jonathan Elrich (Isr)/Irakli Labadze (Geo) 6-4, 6-2; Jaroslav Levinsky/David Skoch (Cze) bt Rohan Bopanna (Ind)/Carols Cuadrado (Esp) 6-4, 7-5.
Top-seeded Argentine Guillermo Canas presents a fine follow through
on serve during his first round victory over George Basti of Switzerland
at the Tata Open tennis championship in Chennai
on Tuesday. - Photo: S. Mahinsha
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