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India Gears Up For 'Somdev Swing'

Chennai, India

Devvarman, Bozoljac© Robert DavisSomdev Devvarman teams up with Ilija Bozoljac in the ATP Challenger Tour's return to India.

Veteran tennis writer Robert Davis will be following the ATP Challenger Tour circuit this year and will write a series of reports. This week, he is at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Chennai, India.

The ATP Challenger circuit has arrived back in India. Our first stop is Chennai, capital city of Tamil Nadu on the famed Coromandel Coast.

It has been awhile since there was a Challenger circuit here in India. But with players like Somdev Devvarman, Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan climbing the Emirates ATP Rankings, the All India Tennis Association must have figured it was high time to get back to the business of hosting events. The three Challengers tournaments will be held in three cities: Chennai, Kolkata and New Delhi.

The first thing you notice in India is the national slogan: Incredible !ndia. It is written everywhere, from billboards to restaurant menus, even on the top of your Immigration Arrivals Card. And yes, it is all very incredible. India is by far the world’s greatest melting pot of cultures; temples, shrines and centuries old churches all rise up majestically above modern buildings. Quite possibly no other country in the world awakens your sense of sight, hearing, smell and taste like India does.

You can hear the players and coaches talking about it in the locker room. They comment on the colourful style of clothes from bright purple and pink silk saris, to stiff collar jackets and saffron coloured turbans. Take a walk around the Sport Authority of Tamil Nadu Tennis Centre where this week’s event is being contested and you are assailed with a barrage of horns, whistles and shouts. Open air restaurants where players and coaches can try spicy hot curries or mutton biryanis and local lentil stews are all there and waiting.

However, most players I saw today were playing it safe with the local food, preferring to eat plain pasta with chicken at the Spring Hotel restaurant. Two players who had no problem trying the local food were the Ratiwatana brothers from Thailand. ‘Thainamite’, as they are called, won the ATP World Tour title in Chennai back in 2009; this week they are here for the Challengers. And everyone knows that Thais love a good curry.

“They (curry) are good here,” says Sanchai Ratiwatana. “Very spicy, but I think Thailand is just a little bit better.”

The Ratiwatana brothers have a special feeling for India. Not only did they win the ATP World Tour event here in Chennai, but they also won their first Challenger in India (2003 Darwhad). Though Thainamite lost their first round match today in a Match Tie-break, they were still seeing the big picture of the circuit.

“It is very good for the development of tennis in Asia to have this circuit here,” says Sonchat Ratiwatana. “It gives good opportunities to us Asians. This year we have had to fly all the way to Sao Paulo and Heilbronn for one tournament only. Here we get three in a row which definitely helps a lot.”

Here at the Stadium of the Sport Authority of Tamil Nadu there are six hard courts and one very big stadium court that has a capacity of 3,000-plus spectators. Some of the players here have joked that this India tour is the Somdev Swing - a reference to India’s number one singles player, Somdev Devvarman, who just happened to be raised right here in Chennai. Somdev’s rise to fame on the ATP World Tour started here back in 2009 when he made the final of the Aircel Chennai Open.

No doubt that for these three weeks it is Somdev’s show, but he is not alone when it comes to tennis success in south India. Chennai boasts a rich tennis tradition with the success of the Amritraj brothers: Vijay, Anand and Ashok. And who can forget the smooth style of Ramesh Krishnan, who had one of the sweetest slice backhands on the ATP World Tour in his day? Leander Paes also did his time in Chennai, moving here as a young boy to develop his attacking game. It was the boys from Chennai who contributed to India’s Cinderella run to the 1987 Davis Cup Final.

Getting back to Somdev Devvarman. When the singles draw came out he drew countryman Ramkumar Ramanathan. It must have felt like Groundhog Day for Somdev. It was a repeat of his first-round match at the Aircel Chennai Open, where he lost to countryman Ramanathan in the first round. Somdev would not be caught off guard this time and staved off the hard-charging Ramanathan through a tricky first set and went up a break 5-4 in the second when Ramanathan retired with cramps.

It seems from talking to the players that the hardest part about playing in India is actually getting an entry visa into India. Players must apply online for an appointment. And it can take days before you are granted an appointment with a Consular Officer. Then your application has to be considered.

Players are required to apply for a ‘sport’ visa, which means that they will then need the following: a) invitation letter from the tournament; b) letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs approving the tournament; c) letter from the Ministry of Youth and Sport stating that they have no objection to the event; d) a letter from the Ministry of External Affairs saying that they have no objection to the Ministry of Youth and Sport or the Home Affairs department for approving the events.

Fortunately, the team at the All India Tennis Association was on the ball early and the required letters were promptly sent to each player. Once a player presented the necessary documents they were told to come back again in three or four working days for passport collection. All said and done it is a laborious process and enough to exhaust a player before he has even hit a ball. However, it appears that good news is on the way. I read in the Times Of India today that the Indian government has finally approved a faster visa granting process for later this year.

Let me tell you what two players in the singles main draw went through just to get to their first round match today: Radu Albot of Moldova and Mohamed Safwat from Egypt. Albot and Safwat played each other in Chisinau, Moldova, this past weekend in Davis Cup action. On the final day, Albot defeated Safwat in four sets. But as they say on the Tour, ‘there is little time to celebrate and no time to cry’. These two players are living proof of that.

No sooner had they shaken hands at the net and showered in the locker rooms than they were getting ready for the long haul to India. There are no direct flights to India from Moldova, so the boys took multiple flights via Moscow and Istanbul and then via Doha and Manama before they could fly to Chennai.

Though they flew separate airlines, both arrived at the airport in Chennai at the same time, 3:30 on the morning of their first match. For Safwat, there was more than just Immigrations and Customs to clear, and a taxi ride to the hotel. Somewhere between Moldova and India his luggage got lost. Not surprisingly, Albot and Safwat lost their matches today, but both players were thankful for the opportunity to play in India.

“At the end of the day, we players need more tournaments like this (three events in a row in the same country) and I am most grateful to the tournament directors and ATP for adding more events to the calendar,” says Albot.

What Albot said seems to be the sentiment of most players and coaches here in Chennai. 

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© Tessa Kolodny

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