Griekspoor beats Bonzi for maiden ATP Tour title at Maharashtra Open

Tallon Griekspoor was coming into the Maharashtra Open ATP 250 final winning a staggering 96.77 % of his service games. His opponent, Frenchman Benjamin Bonzi, 26, had dropped just one set leading into the title clash, and after piercing a hole through the Dutchman’s serve to go a break up 5-4 in Saturday’s opener, looked to be the favourite for the crown.

But Griekspoor, ranked 95, had very different plans. And egged on by a packed, noisy, underdog-loving Pune crowd, turned around the one-set deficit to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 for his first title at this level.

The two had played a lot of junior tennis together, and in the 2021 season, had gone on a Challenger-winning spree, Griekspoor taking eight of those titles, Bonzi claiming six. Both were in their first-ever ATP World Tour final, serving quite well – and it was only that mistake late in the first set when Griekspoor double-faulted that gave the Frenchman an edge.

It had been tough getting points from the back, so both were intent on rushing to the net and looking for volleys. Griekspoor has a rather extravagant inside-out forehand which he used to puncture holes into Bonzi’s confidence, and slowly dismantle his serve.

But it was the wicked lob that hurt Bonzi twice at crucial junctures and opened the latch-door for Griekspoor. Since rallies were hard to prolong due to the evening conditions, the Dutchman would draw Bonzi to the net, defend the short, sliced volley well and then send the ball mooning back in a loop to the baseline, to earn the break points that mattered – late in the second set and early in the third.

The Bonzi serve would start melting just as his opponent’s came together, with the former leaking points if not games, as Griekspoor showed a big heart to wrest the second set from the Frenchman.

It’s been almost a decade since anyone from the Netherlands had won a singles title on the Tour. And now suddenly a pack of them – Tim van Rijthoven ended 2022 well, and Botic van de Zandschulp lost in the semis on Friday – are breaking through on the Tour with some fine results.

Asked who he credited the win in the first week of the season to, Griekspoor would say “to Myself”. While a Dutch resurgence is on, Griekspoor has two brothers playing tennis, besides his compatriots – all training together and pushing each other. “Maybe this title means much more to my family, friends and brothers than me. It’ll give joy to people back home. I had a good off-season training and self- belief today, and it’s for those who believed in me,” he said.

Griekspoor would have some Dutch support in the stands – employees of a Pune-based aeronautics components company trudging up to Balewadi to watch the bunch of Dutch players rising through the ranks.

“It took some time but we kept cheering for him. Great to watch a Dutch guy winning,” Martin Durville, who’s been living here for 13 years, would say. “Our last big tennis hero was Richard Krajeck, when he won Wimbledon (in 1996). So it’s good to watch the whole pack here. We also watched Botic yesterday though he lost in the semis,” he said.

For Bonzi, who started playing tennis so he could beat his cousin, it was a deflating loss after looking so commanding through the first half of the match. But Griekspoor had too much class in his forehand and some fine passing shots, plus the decoys at the net, for Bonzi to counter. The Frenchman lost his accuracy with his confidence, and in the end, the serve puddled into nervous doubting errors.

“I got energy from the crowd, because I was struggling a lot initially,” Griekspoor would say of a boisterous stand that couldn’t stop rooting with chants of “Go Tallon” – mostly hoping they could be treated to a third set. As the tide turned, they would get behind Bonzi, but it was too late in the piece, and the original underdog would benefit from the sonic energy. “These kinds of crowds are one of the reasons why I play and practise hard…” Griekspoor said.

Jeevan-Bala lose to Belgians

India’s N Sriram Balaji and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan’s fine run came to an end after they were beaten by fourth seeds Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen 6-4, 6-4. They were outsmarted by the Belgians who had won five titles before this one.

The European pair had taken out top seeds Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury in the semi-finals, and proved a notch too good for the Indians, who had shocked No. 2 seeds Nathaniel Lammons and Jackson Withrow in the quarter-finals.

It was early breaks in both sets that the Belgians pocketed to put pressure on the Indians, who were left playing catch-up. Unlike their earlier matches, they couldn’t fight on an even keel in the final – their first together on the Tour. Though the short smashes at acute angles fetched them a bunch of points, the Belgians volleyed better and had tighter control on their serve.

“Frankly we were not surprised by our level of play, it was a good start to the year,” Jeevan said, adding that making the French Open draw ( they need a combined ranking of 150) was their first goal for the season.

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