The Chennai Open 2006

I woke up this morning here in Chennai, India to the smell of burning rubber and cloth. Today is the beginning of Pongal, a festival to thank Mother Nature for her harvest. People clean their houses for the festival and, to make way for the new, they burn the old. That was the smell I awoke to: burning clothes, tires and other old objects. Everyone, from the rich to the poor, buys a new outfit for Pongal. Clothes retailers must appreciate the practice.

It was hard to know if the burning was anything out of the usual because the air is clogged with dust and the exhaust of the two-stroke tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws), motorcycles, scooters and cars that treat stoplights like caution signs and roll through roundabouts in a dangerous but effective ballet. Bicycle-driven fruit stands and hauling carts slowly make their way through the middle of the mess.

I prepared for my trip here by talking with a woman who comes here often for business. She would happily move here if her partner were willing because she loves the people so much. It turns out that the day after I arrived, Chennai was hosting the finals of the ATP Chennai Open tennis tournament, the only ATP International Series tournament in India. I tried to get tickets online before arriving but they were only available at the venue – halfway around the world in this case. I called IMG Delhi – IMG is the organizer of the tournament – and asked them to connect me to IMG Chennai. A nice young man named Arjun told me that the semifinals and finals were already sold out but if I called him when I arrived in Chennai, he was sure he could squeeze me in somewhere. “I’m arriving at ten o’clock at night,” I protested. “That’s fine,” he said, “I’ll be working twenty hour days anyway.”

I did call Arjun when I arrived. He met me outside the stadium just before the finals began and gave me my free ticket in the sixth row. Now you can see why some people want to move here.

Chennai was very excited about the finals because two young Indian players, Prakash Amritraj (Vijay’s son) and Rohan Bopanna, were in the doubles final. This is the first time I’ve seen the new doubles format: no-ad scoring and a supertiebreak instead of a third set. I predicted that no-ad scoring might make it harder to hide a weak-serving crafty player because there are no deuce points – whoever wins the fourth point wins the game. So far this has been true. Amritraj and Bopanna beat a veteran team with a weak server in a supertiebreak. The other doubles team today, Michal Mertinak from Slovakia and Petr Pala from the Czech Republic, also beat a veteran team.

We last saw Mertinak as he was served up to Mario Ancic in the final rubber of last year’s Davis Cup. Luckily he seems to have recovered well from that loss to get to a final here. His partner, Pala, is an accomplished doubles player. He’s been a French Open finalist and has four doubles titles.

Amritraj is the lighter hitting member of the Indian team. He has a segmented serve. It looks like someone taught him each separate part of the stroke then forgot to tell him how to put all of the parts together. Bopanna is the big hitter. He’s so long that he has to splay his legs, one forward and one backwards, when he squats down in the front of the I formation (one player squats on the midline in front of the server) so he can get low enough. The Indian team resorted to the I formation early because they got into trouble early. They lost their second service game to go down 1-2 then lost four out of the next five games to lose the first set, 2-6.

At the beginning of the second set, Amritraj and Bopanna started playing more aggressively, poaching and going for serves, and the crowd went crazy. It’s not the usual tennis venue here in Chennai. Spectators chanted and yelled, kids screamed during Mertinak and Pala’s serve and people continued their cellphone conversations throughout the points.

Despite their aggressive play, Amritraj and Bopanna showed weaknesses. Amritraj wasn’t quite quick enough to serve then cover the other side of the court using the I formation, Bopanna’s serve was inconsistent and he doesn’t volley well. Mertinak and Pala were able to exploit the weaknesses, Pala is particularly adept at finding open parts of the court, and they managed to win seven straight games and the match, 6-2, 7-5.

Among other reasons, the ATP changed doubles matches to no-ad with a supertiebreak so that doubles matches would be shorter. The match here lasted one hour and nine minutes, short enough so that promoters can put doubles before the singles final and have an audience for the match. At most tournaments, the doubles is after the singles and the stands are empty. So far the changes are working.

Ivan Ljubicic and Carlos Moya are the singles finalists. Moya has won the tournament the last two years and the crowd loves him. He’s on the down side of his career, though, and he’s not likely to win today if Ljubicic is serving well. This is possible because a rainstorm last night interrupted the Ljubicic’s semifinal match. He had to finish part of the first set and the second set this morning so me might be tired.

Both players struggled to begin with. Lubicic had two double faults in one game and Moya had some problems at the net – Ljubicic’s early strategy was to draw him there with short shots. Still, they managed to stay on serve in the first set though Ljubicic had to hit two aces and two service winners to fight off set points and get to 6-5.

The tiebreaker continued the same way. Ljubicic was down 0-4 and managed to get to 5-5 with the help of an ace. Moya passed Ljubicic to get a set point at 6-5 then Ljubicic came up with two more aces. If Ljubicic serves well, that’s bad news for Moya. Even worse, Moya hit a double fault on Ljubicic’s first set point to lose the tiebreaker and first set.

The first game of the second set was the best game of the match. Moya held serve but it took eighteen points, six of them ending with one or both players at the net. In the best point, Ljubicic hit an approach shot followed by an overhead. Moya got to the ball then hit an approach shot of his own only to have Ljubicic hit a backhand past him for a winner. Moya was not so lucky in his next two service games. Ljubicic hit returns for winners and kept coming to the net to get to 5-1.

Ljubicic closed out the match with an ace and a serve that set up a winner. Moya is a good baseliner but Ljubicic has a better all court game and too much serve. Ljubicic had his first title of the year, 7-6(6), 6-2.

After the match I didn’t know how to get back to the hotel so I walked up to a police office and asked him for help. He batted his eyes at me and said that he was originally from Nepal. After he found me a rickshaw taxi, he told me to pay 20 rupees less than the driver asked for and stuck his head inside the taxi. I think he wanted the 20 rupees difference in return for his help but I wasn’t quick enough to figure that out at the time. The rickshaw driver had an annoying Harpo Marx horn he used at every opportunity and, for some reason, insisted on driving part of the trip on dirt roads. Dirt roads in the U.S. are bumpy; dirt roads in India are hilly.

The evening after the match I switched from the American version of the flu I arrived with to an Indian version. I now have a bronchial irritation and the same cough as a few of my teachers at the yoga center where I am studying. So far it’s been worth it.