More than twenty years ago, my father would wake me up at the crack of dawn to take me to tennis practice at the Muthukrishnan Memorial Tennis Centre near Valluvar Kottam, while he himself played on a set of sandy courts at the edge of a large open ground in the same neighbourhood. Who could have imagined then that the denizens of Chennai would one day watch, at the very parched spot where my father was playing amateur doubles, the likes of Becker, Rafter, Kafelnikov, Paes, Bhupathi, Moya and Nadal?
Chennai’s annual ATP tournament is now a permanent fixture, one that we have come to take for granted. A decade ago it was a novelty, a treat to be devoured with incredulous glee. Having begun life in Delhi, the tournament had quickly shifted to Chennai, finding a long-term home at the newly-built SDAT stadium in Nungambakkam. It was then sponsored by a cigarette brand, and on the narrow residential streets of Lake Area you could see, alongside the spectators queuing for tickets, anti-smoking demonstrators holding placards. In the early days the excitement among the crowds was palpable, especially when a superstar first arrived in Nungambakkam in the shape of Boris Becker, who played in one of the early editions. I had never expected to see my childhood hero play live, and now here he was, before my eyes, playing barely a couple of kilometres from our home. Becker was at the fag end of his career, and lost early on in the tournament to an unknown Frenchman named Gerard Solves. As the three-time Wimbledon champ’s car pulled out of the complex later on, fans thronged the railings of the spiral walkways leading off the Centre Court stands to ground level, reluctant to let him out of their sight.
Other international players elicited interest too. Pat Rafter won the tournament in his pony-tail-sporting days, while Ivo Karlovic, pushing seven feet, was known to Chennai fans some years before he reached the second week of Wimbledon. Yevgeny Kafelnikov flew in – and out, a few days later – in his private jet. But the spectators really came into their own when India’s most successful doubles pairing first blossomed on the courts of Nungambakkam. ‘Aska lakadi gummava, Bhupathi enna summava?’ wags (and I don’t mean WAGs) in the crowd would chant. If they lost a point, it was ‘Leander, don’t meander! Bhupathi, try homoeopathy!’ The pair’s tournament win in Chennai became the platform for their successful Grand Slam career, including their dream run in 1999, when they reached the finals of all four ‘majors’.
Over the years, the tournament has been shifted from April to January to beat the Chennai heat; its name has changed along with its sponsors, first to Tata Open and now Aircel Chennai Open; and it has attracted its fair share of famous regulars – Carlos Moya kept coming back for a whole decade. Announcers with fancy accents might call it the ‘Che-naaai Open’ and some of the green seats close to court level might be home to an assortment of high-society types, but on the whole the fans have remained resolutely carefree. It is almost as though the stands and crowds from a cricket match had been tacked on to a tennis court. While the spectators at Wimbledon wear sunscreen, eat £2 strawberries and drink £6 Pimms and lemonade, in Chennai you’re more likely to catch a whiff of the cinema-theatre smell of veg puff and samosa, and you will still get the occasional freebie from a company launching a new soft drink. More stalls have sprung up on the strip of grass adjoining the outer courts, and a large screen there shows the action on Centre Court. The grounds continue to wear a relaxed look, and occasionally the larger-than-life players stroll surreally close to the public. My mother once got an autograph from Paradorn Srichaphan – she didn’t recognise him, but thought he looked like a ‘chamathu paiyan’ (good boy).
The early frenzy appears to have abated somewhat in recent years, perhaps due in part to the surfeit of entertainment options and big-name events that have become available in the city: IPL matches, celebrity appearances, ever-larger air-conditioned malls. But it is still a special experience to sit high up in the stands, looking down at the floodlit court as the sea breeze blows across the stadium. The average fan may be somewhat deficient in such niceties as not talking between serves, but the chatter is always fascinating. A couple of years ago, I sat watching a first-round match between Janko Tipsarevic, the Dostoevsky-reading Serbian, and Spain’s Carlos Moya, by some distance the crowd favourite. In the row behind us a pair of teenaged boys dissected the game, mostly in Tamil. One of them was aggressively supporting Moya, while his friend was quietly tipping in Tipsarevic’s direction. As Tipsarevic began to dictate terms, the first boy said in dismay: ‘The naayi is hitting well, da. It’s hitting really well, da!’ Quick serves were greeted with ‘Rocket ra!’ Moya, the boys felt, lacked ‘placement’: ‘He’s getting into position, he’s doing everything, but he’s not placing the ball.’ The commentary carried on during points. Flat, line-hugging forehands were met with ‘Addra sakke!’ or ‘Besh!’ Effective shots from the Serbian elicited shouts of ‘Oh dash! Oh oh dash!’
Next week the stands will fill up once more. Will Somdev Devvarman’s dream run of 2009 be replicated by an Indian – by Devvarman himself or perhaps by Yuki Bhambri? Or will the best non-Federer Swiss in tennis, Stan Wawrinka, retain the trophy? Whatever happens, there’ll be no shortage of addra sakes ringing out in the stands.