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Chennai Open 2017 preview: Marin Cilic, Roberto Bautista Agut aim for strong start to new season

It’s barely been over 24 hours in the new year but the 2017 tennis season is well underway. After a month’s hiatus, the ATP tour kicks off with three 250 tournaments across the globe – Brisbane, Doha and Chennai.

For Indian tennis fans, the Chennai Open is the biggest and most prestigious tennis event held in the country. Over its 22 years of history, it has played host to many top players – from Boris Becker to Rafael Nadal. The last three editions proved “lucky” for Swiss star Stan Wawrinka, who won three straight titles and then went to lift a Grand Slam through the year. Though the defending US Open champion has opted to compete at Brisbane this time around, there are plenty of others vying for this stroke of luck in 2017.

Ramkumar Ramanathan, Saketh Myneni, Casper Ruud at the Aircel Chennai Open Draw Ceremony.

Ramkumar Ramanathan, Saketh Myneni, Casper Ruud at the Aircel Chennai Open Draw Ceremony.

Leading the field is World No 6 and former US Open champion Marin Cilic. The Croatian has his own history with the Chennai Open. Back in 2010 when the Croat lifted the title for a second time, he went on to the semis of a Slam for the first time in Melbourne. Cilic had a very successful season in 2016, winning his first ATP 1000 Masters title and achieving a career-high ranking. But he will have to shake off the heartbreak of an agonising loss in the Davis Cup final five weeks ago and reset for a fresh season.

Lurking in Cilic’s half of the 28-player draw is third seed Albert Ramos-Vinolas. The Spaniard could prove to be a tricky last eight opponent, but to get there he will potentially have to get past talented youngster Borna Coric. The 20-year-old was once touted as the next big thing but has struggled with injuries over the last few months. Coric also has some experience of playing on the hard courts of the SDAT Stadium with a finals appearance in 2016. The only other seed in the top half is Taiwanese Lu Yen-hsun. With three qualifiers in the top half, on paper it looks like the easier one.

Cilic will fancy his chances against either Ramos-Violas or Coric as he has never lost a set to them in their previous encounters. “Stan has played the last few years here,” he said. “So I guess it is a quite popular tournament. It often comes in people’s minds when Stan was doing so well in Australia. He would start his season in Chennai and that sent a message,” he told The Hindu ahead of the tournament.

Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut is seeded second and leads the bottom half. After a strong 2016 season, he will be looking to do one better than 2013, when he lost in the finals. He achieved a career-high ranking of 13 in 2016, thanks to two titles and a famous victory over Novak Djokovic at the Shanghai Masters, where he made his first-ever Masters 1000 final.

Fourth seed Martin Klizan is the other big threat in the lower half. The Slovak will be making his debut at the Indian tournament and will be hoping for a better start to his season than 2016, when he suffered first-round losses in Doha, Sydney and Melbourne. On the prowl in this half are the erratic Frenchman Benoit Paire, Briton Aljaz Bedene, and Russian Mikhail Youzhny. All three players have been regulars at the season-opener in Chennai and have enjoyed varying degrees of success.

Youzhny, who won the title in 2008 with a victory over Rafael Nadal in the final, is rebuilding a second career of sorts. After having fallen out of the top 100 in 2015, he was forced to play on the ATP Challenger circuit. But the “Colonel”, as he is fondly called, took the challenge head on and ground out results to win three straight titles on the lower rung of the tour at the start of 2016. After fighting tooth and nail to return to the top 100, he finished the latter half of his season on a high, with two wins over top-30 players – Klizan and Milos Raonic. Now back in the top 50, he is aiming to continue his resurgence this year.

"I have a great memory winning in 2008, defeating (Rafael) Nadal in the final. It was like yesterday. It's a motivation to come back,” Youzhny was reported as saying by the Chennai Open website.

In the singles draw, there are three Indian players in action — Saketh Myneni, Ramkumar Ramanathan and Yuki Bhambri. Myneni and Ramanthan received wild cards into the maid draw while Bhambri had to come through two rounds of qualifying. Unfortunately for Indian fans, Bhambri will face off against Ramanthan in the very first round. The 24-year-old from Delhi has had a rough 12 months, sliding to 474 in the rankings after an injury-plagued season. His opponent, the 22-year-old from Chennai, will definitely have the crowd on his side as he aims to replicate his 2014 performance when he upset Somdev Devvarman and reached the quarter-finals.

The third Indian hope, Myneni, who is making his main draw debut, will have his hands full in the first round. Myneni has been drawn against Youzhny and the Russian will be a tough opponent to overcome. Other intriguing first round clashes include those between Next Gen’s Hyeon Chung and Coric and Bedene’s match against Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. All the top four seeds have byes into the second round.

While Cilic and Bautista Agut are favourites to come through their respective halves, this tournament has always thrown up surprises. As the season-opener, there are plenty of unanswered questions over players’ fitness and form. It is also a perfect warm-up to the Australian Open, with the open hard courts in Chennai mirroring the surface of the first Slam.

The brutal tennis scheduling allows little space for rustiness but as history has shown, the Chennai Open could turn out to a springboard for bigger milestones over the rest of the season. Starting Monday, 28 players will be hoping the tournament turns out to be a harbinger of success and their lucky charm.

Updated Date: Jan 02, 2017 11:29 AM

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