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ATP Challenger Tour Dispatch: Kolkata

Kolkata, India

Kolkata© Robert DavisPlayers assemble for the welcome ceremony of the ATP Challenger Tour event in Kolkata.

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 Kolkata, India.

We are now in Kolkata for the State Bank of India ATP Challenger. The second leg of the India Challenger circuit. Last week we were in Chennai and to get here we flew 843 miles (1,356 kilometers) north up the coast over the Bay of Bengal. It took us just two hours and ten minutes of flying time to arrive in the city that was once considered the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Many of you readers might recognize it by its former name, Calcutta.

The guys are playing this week at the Bengal Tennis Center, which has 6 Deco Turf hard courts laid out in a row parallel to each other. The courts are playing medium fast and when the wind kicks up a thin layer of dust can settle over the courts making the ball skid a bit off the bounce. So far, I have not heard any complaints about the courts or balls. Court number 1 has been converted into a makeshift seating area with a VIP section and shaded block for fans. Match courts are 2, 4 and 6 with the practice courts 3 and 5 tucked in between. It can get a bit crowded out there but the players understand the situation and those practising take extra care not to shank balls onto the match courts during play.
 
The tennis center lies in the shadows of the mammoth Salt Lake City Football Stadium. Home of the Kingfisher East Bengals. What makes this stadium unique is it is the largest soccer stadium in India and the second largest in the world with a capacity for 120,000 people. On the first day of the qualifying round it was often hard for the players to hear the linesmen and chair umpires over the roar of the crowd, who were wildly cheering during a domestic league cup tournament.

Here in Kolkata they certainly love their sport. For the opening ceremony of this tournament they spared no expense to make the guys feel welcome. A red carpet was even rolled out and players and coaches were requested to join in. The chief guest was the Governor of Kolkata, followed by VIPs and distinguished former tennis players. The tennis center got a fresh coat of paint and dressed up with colorful sponsor banners and potted plants.

When the Governor walked out onto the court a marching band struck up smartly. Say what you will, but India sure knows how to put on a show. During the speeches references were made often to the ‘iconic’ Leander Paes. Leander is Kolkata’s favorite son. Holder of 14 Grand Slam titles, one Olympic bronze medal and just about every India Davis Cup record from most years played to most singles and doubles wins, Leander stands tall here in Kolkata.

A little back story on Leander involves his father, Vece Paes, who as the captain for the Indian national field hockey team, won the bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics. And Vece Paes also served as the lead consultant for the hit Hollywood movie, City of Joy. The movie was based on the novel, City Of Joy, by Dominique Lapierre (1985). When it was released the movie did for Kolkata what Slumdog Millionaire did for Mumbai; it showed the good, bad and ugly, but in the end kindness trumped evil.

Read Chennai Challenger Dispatch

For readers who might not be familiar with the details of an ATP Challenger event, let me explain. Just like on the ATP World Tour, players compete for prize money and points. The winner of this event will net US$7,200. Even with the full lot of expenses (travel, accommodation plus coach) that is a good sum for a week of work. But what most players admit is that their primary goal is not the money, but the points.

For a professional tennis player, Emirates ATP Rankings points are as good as gold. The points not only determine your ranking and your position in the race to the ATP Challenger Tour Finals, but in an odd sort of way they also determine your identity. Nearly every week a player is introduced by his ranking not only on the court but off the court as well. Even when a player hangs up his racquet he cannot escape the constant question: What was your highest ranking?

Each tournament has a ‘cut’ or a last direct acceptance into the main draw. Last week in Chennai, the cut was the number 276 player in the world. This week the cut is higher at 255, and the last player to enter the main draw by ranking was Theodoros Angelinos from Greece. Now, some of you might think that 276 does not sound very good. But consider , that if you are the top 400 football player in the world you are in the NFL or English Premier League. That might help to put it in perspective.

The ATP Challenger Tour is full of some very good tennis players and this week is no exception. According to the players this is a very tough tournament. To give you an idea, the top seed is Aleksandr Nedovyesov of Kazakhstan, who is ranked 97. And there are seven players here who played in the Davis Cup competition two weeks ago. A few players in the draw this week have been ranked inside or just on the edge of the Top 100 singles players in the world.

India’s No. 1 Somdev Devvarman got as high as 62 and Switzerland’s Marco Chiudinelli reached a career-best 52 and was the 2010 ATP Comeback Player of the Year. Iliya Bozoljac of Serbia could not have been closer back in 2007 when he climbed to 101. Many fans might remember him as ‘Bozo The Beast’ for his 2013 Davis Cup heroics against the Bryan brothers when he and Nenad Zimonjic won 15-13 in the final set. Go Soeda of Japan has been ranked 47 and just last week helped Japan to a historic win in the Davis Cup World Group over Canada. Heck, even Soeda’s coach, Davide Sanguinetti was a top 50 player.

Ask just about any tennis player what their goal is when they begin to play the ATP Challengers and nearly every one of them to a man will say to reach the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings. A world ranking of 100 is the magic number for an up and coming tennis player. Why you might ask? A Top 100 ranking allows you to play in select Tour events and also direct entry into the Grand Slams. You could say 100 is the Mount Everest for many a tennis player. However, once you get there the fight gets even tougher because not only is the competition stiffer but a player has to defend from the surge of all those other hungry tennis players thrusting up from below.

Here in Kolkata the winner of the singles tournament will get 80 points. That is a lot of points and for the third seed, Evgeny Donskoy of Russia, it would mean a jump from current 132 to inside the Top 100. You can be sure that he is well aware of that fact.

Every year a few players burst onto the scene like Pablo Carreno Busta and Jiri Vesely did in 2013. They had to earn their places the hard way - by winning lots of tennis matches out here. Each week on the ATP Challenger Tour gladiator-like battles are fought all over the world from exotic cities like Noumea, Kyoto and Samarkand.

The Challenger Circuit is also chock full of savvy veterans who have spent time under the bright lights of the ATP World Tour. And they are in a hurry to get back there. Some of these veterans have slipped because of injury and others because of age, but they can still play the game at a very high level. One thing a young man learns quickly on the ATP Challenger Tour is that you do not get Emirates ATP Rankings points for sympathy. You have to win that last point no matter how hard you worked or how good you played. And that tennis fans is what makes the ATP Challenger Tour so fascinating to a be a part of; the drama and intrigue of men working and fighting and giving all they’ve got to give for a dream and those precious ATP points.

 

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