| Radek Stepanek in action during his match against Navarro Pastor at the Chennai Open on Tuesday. (AFP)
Chennai: The big boys were all on show at the Nungambakkam Stadium on Tuesday, and all of them had their moments of crisis in the year’s opening engagement. But guess who stole the show' Our very own Rohan Bopanna, who embellished his CV with a first-ever top-100 scalp.
An unpretentious Paraguayan by the name of Ramon Delgado came mighty close to felling a Chennai Open legend earlier in the evening. If Paradorn Srichaphan came out smiling from a two-hour, 15-minute roller-coaster ride, it was as much a tribute to the Thai’s will to win as it was a reflection of Delgado running out of steam in the final set tie-breaker.
Carlos Moya, another of Chennai’s adopted sons, had his own problems against that beanpole of a man called Dick Norman. The six-foot-eight Belgian lost a tight first set to the two-time champion, levelled scores before fizzling out to go down 4-6, 6-3, 1-6.
Second seed Radek Stepanek, the only man in the world’s top-25 not to have won an ATP title yet, battled past Spanish journeyman Ivan Navarro Pastor 6-4, 7-6 (7-3). The 20th-ranked Czech will on Wednesday face Prakash Amritraj.
Out on court 1, oblivious to the rumblings on Centre Court, Bopanna was busy carving a niche for himself. And, after 54 minutes of 440-volt tennis, India’s biggest server (arguably of all time) had packed off experienced Frenchman Cyril Saulnier 6-3, 6-3.
“This has to be my best win' the last time I played this level of tennis (and lost in five sets) was against Dutchman Martin Verkerk in the Davis Cup,” the 26-year-old Indian was to say later.
Going just by numbers, the Indian qualifier should have been easy fodder for Saulnier. The Frenchman, ranked No. 90 as against Bopanna’s 266, is coming off a satisfying year when he featured in his maiden ATP final (in San Jose where he lost to Andy Roddick), broke into the top-50 for the first time and finished in the top-100 for the third straight year.
If Saulnier possessed the credentials, Bopanna had the power to probe the Frenchman’s defence. He had served notice of his growing stature when he gave former Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson a run for his money at the Davis Cup tie in Delhi three months ago. And over the last weekend, Bopanna had seen off three foreign pretenders to earn his spot in the main draw.
Bopanna’s new-found confidence and hard-hitting style proved a heady cocktail for Saulnier. Producing aces (he had seven in the match) whenever the chips were down and going for the lines when half an opportunity beckoned, Bopanna saved all three break-points and converted three out of three as well to leave no escape route for Saulnier. On Thursday, Bopanna will come up against Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller.
Srichaphan’s 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3) triumph was a laboured effort indeed. Finalist at this $380,000 event for the last four years, the world No. 42 was ushered in to Centre Court by a legion of young fans who were there to scream their guts out to help Srichaphan make a convincing start.
He looked different, tiny strands of hair just about popping out of his bald pate. His game didn’t look normal either. There was no fizz, nor any urgency in his tennis.
Srichaphan had chances galore in the opening set with Delgado struggling with his serve. But the Thai let his opponent stave off a pair of break-points each in games 2 and 4, before himself dropping serve following back-to-back misdirected forehands.
It was as if Srichaphan had taken his mandatory one-week monkhood routine last month too seriously. He seemed to be living in a far-off world as another couple of chances ' this time to break back in game 6 ' came and went.
Delgado made hay till the sun shone and pocketed the first set in 50 minutes.
The wake-up call was ringing loud and clear. Srichaphan put on his thinking cap and soon shed off his timid approach. More frequent visits to the net and the odd chip-and-charge paid off as Delgado surrendered the second set in 21 minutes.
But the Paraguayan was in no mood to throw in the towel. He contributed equally to a riveting final set which saw Srichaphan waste three more break-points. It inevitably went to a tie-breaker and Delgado was caught napping by a rival who had smelled blood by then.