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Tata Open Maharashtra: Young and not-so-young hope to launch 2022 campaign on Indian soil


Daniil Medvedev wasn’t exactly battling windmills when he had a tilt at the chair umpire, complaining against Stefanos Tsitsipas allegedly receiving on-court coaching in the Australian Open semifinal. Maybe he read the winds of change howling in – with pinpoint tactics. Fresh off the Next Generation Finals last November at home in Milan where coaches could yell out instructions during a match, 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti reckons coaches steering on-court strategy could well be the future of tennis.

The Italian youngster, who nicked two sets off Novak Djokovic at the French Open last year and was dubbed a sensation after becoming one of the youngest to crack the Top 100, is at Pune’s Balewadi courts for the Tata Open Maharashtra. He comes armed with a single-handed backhand and an equally strong conviction that on-court coaching is the way forward.

“As I always said, we got the chance to use it (on-court coaching) in the Next Gen (tournament). It’s really helpful. It’s gonna be the future for sure because every sport has it. In WTA, they use it already. In the future probably, (it’ll be) used more. When you get a warning for coaching, it sounds like you don’t accept (it) too much. To be able to speak to a coach is not a big fault. I’m 100 percent pro-coaching,” Musetti asserted.

Considered one of the upcoming stars of the sport, the Italian is following in sure strides and in the slipstream of compatriots Fabio Fognini, Matteo Berrettini and Jannick Sinner. Musetti has scalped Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov, Diego Schwartzman, Kei Nishikori and David Goffin. In Pune, he arrives as a potential roadblock to defending champion Jiri Vesely. The tournament was last held in 2020 on the cusp of the pandemic wreckage sweeping the world, when the Czech player won.

Musetti went out to fellow Next-Genner Alex de Minaur at the Australian Open in the opening round, but is looking to go deep into the draw here. “I’m here to play good matches and get my confidence back,” he stated, adding he was hoping to reach the same levels that helped him rattle Djokovic in Paris last summer.

Russian Aslan Karatsev is the top seed in Pune.

INDIANS KEEP PLODDING ON

Four Indians find themselves in the singles main draw, all facing steep challenges – like the fort faces in this city – as opponents. Ramkumar Ramanathan meets a good friend and fierce rival in eighth seed Stefano Travaglia. For a while now – since Somdev Devvarman briefly sparked – expectations from Indians in singles have been massively tempered. Precious points to improve their rankings, at best, is the expectation.

“It’s a good feeling to have tournaments back in India. Hopefully we’ll have good matches, and get rankings up,” Ramkumar said. “Hopefully, I serve well and get fired up,” says the Indian ranked 184, who won his first ATP Challenger title at Manama in November.

This was around the same time as the Next Genners were sprouting at Milan. At 27, that train of ‘promise’ is long gone, but the hardworking Chennai man continues to plod. The first five months of the pandemic, he even took some initiative to get going.

The break in March 2020 came as a blessing in disguise. “We did some fitness. Hadn’t been home for years, because it’s a different lifestyle living out of a suitcase, travelling and training a lot. Did some core sessions with friends. We had a group. Used it in a good way. To start with it was a Zoom call, just seven of us Chennai friends. Just planned to do core workouts through Zoom calls. For an hour. Then we started adding other tennis players from India. Sania (Mirza) came in. (Rohan) Bopanna came in. Purav Raja was there. 5-6 in the evening. One hour each day, one player as coach would lead us through a workout. Didn’t miss even one of those 150 days,” Ramkumar recalls.

When the tour resumed, it was a pile of paperwork to travel – “More letters, fill more papers, visas were difficult. Still, we could get to do what we love – play matches.”

So, in the lead-up to Manama, Ramkumar strung together a few good weeks with quarterfinals and tidy runs in Challengers. “I paced it real well. In the quarters, I was 5-3 down in the third set. Somehow, I could turn things around. That match gave me a lot of confidence,” he recalls. Getting in there on Friday, he had relied on light training, taking couple of days off. “I was refreshed for my matches. First match playing fine, second was better. Serving better and better as we went along, which helped. Having coaches around me giving me the belief I can do well,” he says.

Yet the Indian interest – as the week slides on – will drift to doubles, where Ramkumar combines with Bopanna again, after their recent Adelaide title.

“Who doesn’t enjoy playing with Bopanna? As both of us are Indians, we can say anything to each other. It’s more relaxed. Him being senior, there’s no pressure on me. I just go for my shots. We have fun,” he says, adding, “It’s always good to play in India. We must make use of the opportunity and play well,” he avers.

N-TH COMEBACK

Yuki Bhambri doesn’t believe in luck determining his fate, never mind the myriad injuries. Having hinted that he’ll tilt towards doubles more seriously now, though, the Delhi man – once India’s top stroke-maker – seems liberated. Forever jinxed by injuries in his staccato career, he has turned philosophical of late.

“I definitely have to work harder than an average tennis player out there who doesn’t get injured. Do a little bit more. Recover better to peak fitness. But having experience of doing it so many times, you know how to go about it, and that’s kept me going. Having previously been successful, keeps me motivated to come back again and again. Helps navigate through my time on tour. Of course, you appreciate a lot more. You don’t take things for granted and have more gratitude. Coming here, playing matches – I won’t say content – but I try playing tennis with a bit more smile, less frustration,” he says.

His umpteenth injury rehab blended with the onset of the pandemic, and that meant more outdoor runs than the gym training he’d have liked. He found kindred souls in some of Delhi’s fast bowlers he’s friends with, who had the same proclivities for breakdowns.

“I try and play other sports when not tennis, like cricket and soccer. I’m friends with fast bowlers because we had the same trainer. I’m a big lover of cricket and enjoy listening to stories. And there’s always banter on who’s fitter. They thrive off it. Navdeep Saini is a good friend. On fitness, in running it would probably be me better than him, but lifting, strength-wise it’d probably be him,” he says.

On the court though, the mileage is one slow step after another in goals for 2022. “Get the ranking up, to be able to play Grand Slams again.”

COVID SHADOW

One unnamed player who fell ill was pulled out of the qualifiers and replaced ahead of the tournament, the organisers informed The Indian Express.

As such, strict guidelines are in place including a precondition of double vaccination for all players. Mobile testing vans at the hotel will be available to test any time of the day in this strict bubble. All player rooms will also be equipped with self-testing kits for any emergency.

A ‘Tournament Infection Control Officer (TICO)’ has also been appointed by the organisers so that they can trace all possible contacts of the positive case, if any, as per the tournament protocols and guidelines.





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