| Prakash Amritraj rips a forehand against Ricardo Mello of Brazil in Chennai on Monday. (PTI)
Chennai: It needed a strong gust of wind to sweep away the ominous clouds which brought in a fleeting shower minutes before 5 pm on Monday.
The weather cleared up in next to no time, and, within a couple of hours, India’s singles fortunes at the Chennai Open had taken a surprising U-turn. Prakash Amritraj played two terrific sets to scalp Ricardo Mello, a much higher ranked opponent from Brazil, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 in Round I.
And, on an outside court, fellow-Davis Cupper Rohan Bopanna silenced India-born American Rajeev Ram 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 to grab a berth in the main draw.
It wasn’t smooth sailing for Bopanna, who trailed 1-3 in the first set, before unleashing his trademark serves. His 16 aces made the difference in the end.
For a tournament replete with instances of home players making no more than guest appearances in singles and wasting wild cards year after year, it was a memorable evening indeed.
After all, only twice before had the crowd here witnessed Indian first-round wins (Leander Paes in 1998 when he advanced to the semis and Amritraj in 2004 when he beat Harsh Mankad). And just once had an Indian qualified for the main draw (Mankad last year) before Bopanna.
Leander Paes added to the euphoria as he and new partner Martin Damm stitched together a laboured 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 10-3 win over Americans Ashley Fisher and Justin Gimelstob. The top seeds played second fiddle for a set and a quarter, drew level with a smooth tie-breaker and raced to victory by pocketing the newly introduced first-to-10-points third set tie-breaker.
Despite national champion Vishal Uppal suffering a 3-6, 1-6 rout at the hands of Czech Jiri Vanek, Chennai couldn’t have hoped for a merrier start to the 10th year of its hosting this premier $380,000 meet, the lone ATP event in south Asia.
The first set of the Prakash versus Mello encounter hardly reflected the future.
The 25-year-old Brazilian, nicknamed ‘Papagoyo’ (Latin for parrot) for his shy, soft-spoken nature, let his racket do all the talking and went a set up in less than half an hour, capturing Prakash’s serve twice (games 2 and 7).
A left-hander with a swinging forehand and a whiplash double-fisted backhand, Mello called the shots like a world No. 111 is expected to do against someone ranked 156 spots lower. The Brazilian camped on the baseline and rarely missed a ball.
Prakash moved quite well and gave the impression that he was spoiling for a fight from the backcourt.
Not the ideal tactic for a player whose basic instinct is to attack the net at the first opportunity. The fact that he missed a couple of overhead volleys and got caught at the net a few times perhaps stifled Prakash.
Egged on by dad Vijay, who happens to be his coach-mentor-guide-friend rolled into one, grandparents Robert and Maggie, uncle Anand and cousin Stephen ' who was dressed in a jacket in Tricolours ' the 22-year-old realized his folly and took corrective measures.
All it took was a dose of aggro and a determined effort to pressurize Mello’s serve. Three good shots, capped by a brilliantly set up forehand putaway, gave Prakash the first break in game 4.
Having picked up his first-serve percentage (it was a mere 32 per cent in the first set) substantially, Prakash went for the jugular to close out the set with a second service break in game 8.
The momentum was clearly with the Indian, as Mello showed no inclination to try anything different.
There was a hiccup for Prakash, though. He lost serve straightaway in the deciding set, after slipping and falling on the baseline to bruise his hands and knees. But, to the Indian’s credit, he didn’t take long to put that behind him.
He took a medical timeout to repair the minor ‘damages’, and set about regaining the initiative.
Mello was broken back in the very second game, on a classy backhand volley. Giving the Brazilian no opening on his serve, Prakash breached Mello’s defence yet again in the sixth game. A forehand service return winner beat Mello hands down and opened up a 4-2 lead for Prakash.
There was no stopping the Indian, as he sealed the match by holding to love for the fifth time in the hour-and-40-minute match.