On a fine winter afternoon on Wednesday, fans slowly trickled into the Balewadi Stadium in Pune for a surprisingly early 2.30 pm start at the Tata Open Maharashtra. Little did they know then that they were in for an extremely eventful day of tennis.
India’s top-ranked player, 25-year-old Yuki Bhambri, started proceedings against eighth-seeded Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert. Bhambri, who had previously won two Challenger events at the same venue, was scheduled for a doubles match later in the day — his third overall in a span of 24 hours.
The Delhi lad got off to a perfect start and raced to a 2-0 lead in the opening set. He returned solidly from the baseline and wasn’t afraid to venture towards the net to neutralise Herbert’s old-school serve-and-volley game.
Herbert, who has two doubles Grand Slam titles to his name, often found himself getting passed and was being forced too far behind on the court by Bhambri’s powerful groundstrokes in long rallies. Bhambri sealed the opening set 6-3 in 35 minutes after Herbert overhit a forehand return on his second set point.
However, the Frenchman, ranked 37 places higher than Bhambri at 81, was quick to adapt to the fast court conditions and consistently improved as the match went on. Herbert broke early in the second set and the momentum quickly swung his way. Herbert levelled the match with an excellent service game, which he held to love with four service winners.
The match looked set to take another twist in the deciding set as the Indian had 0-40 on Herbert’s serve in two back-to-back games. But Bhambri couldn’t convert on any of the six break point opportunities and the match quickly slipped out of his grasp.
Under such immense pressure, it was Herbert’s quirky, clutch serve that got him out of trouble time and again and he ended the match with 13 aces. Bhambri, on the other hand, could only manage to win 57 percent of points on his first serve. In his first round against compatriot Arjun Kadhe, the cracks in Bhambri’s usually-reliable serve were visible, and it again let him down when he needed it the most.
Herbert secured a break in the fifth game of the third set and that was enough for him to clinch victory. The eighth seed prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 4-6 in an hour and 52 minutes to progress to the quarter-finals of the ATP 250 event.
After the match, Bhambri admitted that he was very disappointed to have lost out after having so many opportunities.
“I really feel I had a very good shot at winning today. When you know you were so close to winning, it obviously hurts to have lost. There were two times (in the deciding set) at 15-40 and 0-40 that he played really well. And I think that could have been the match probably,” Bhambri told Firstpost.
Bhambri later teamed up with compatriot Divij Sharan to win their first round of the doubles against Blaz Kavcic and Laslo Djere in commanding fashion, wrapping up a 6-2, 6-2 win in just 54 minutes.
While Bhambri and Herbert were battling it out on Centre Court, a heated rollercoaster encounter was taking place outside on Court 1 between fourth-seeded Benoit Paire of France and Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics. Paire survived five match points to eventually win 6-4, 6-7(4), 7-6(6) after three gruelling hours of topsy-turvy tennis.
The fans were treated to another tumultuous match when defending champion Roberto Bautista Agut was shown the door by French veteran Gilles Simon.
Simon, who struggled with his form in a difficult 2017 season, had fallen to 89 in the ATP rankings. But on Wednesday, Simon frustrated his Spanish opponent with his punishing groundstrokes to extend his win-loss record to 5-1 against Baustista Agut.
The 33-year-old from Nice broke in the sixth game of the opening set and despite the 20th-ranked Spaniard saving a set point while serving at 2-5, Simon had little trouble in closing out the opener 6-3 in 48 minutes.
Simon produced some delightful shots as he continued to play aggressively in the second set to secure a double break and lead 4-1. Just when it looked like the match was done and dusted, Bautista Agut pegged Simon back to 4-4.
Bautista Agut looked set to take the match into the decisive third set when he led 5-3 in the tie-break. However, Simon won four successive points to secure a well-deserved 6-3, 7-6(5) win. Simon will face another Spaniard in qualifier Ricardo Ojeda Lara, who later triumphed 6-4, 6-4 over Belarusian Ilya Ivashka.
Top seed Marin Cilic, a two-time champion at this event, was up against home favourite Ramkumar Ramanathan in the big-ticket match of Wednesday. The contest between the two big servers was short on long rallies but had plenty of service winners and crafty points at the net.
Cilic took control of the first set with a break in the fourth game and was largely untroubled despite suffering from a serving lapse at 5-3. He immediately broke back in the next game to win the opener 6-4.
In the second set, the Croatian dropped just five points on his own serve and a double fault from Ramanathan handed Cilic the all-important break in the second set.
Ramanathan tried to ride the loud support in the stands and keep the match competitive, but the World No 148 was no match for Cilic’s superior talent and shot-making. Cilic marched into the last-16 with a comfortable 6-4, 6-3 win and will take on Herbert on Thursday.
“I gave my best from the first point. But when you play against these (top-ranked) players, it’s a matter of few points here and there. The double fault cost me in the second set, and at 5-4 (in the first) I didn’t serve many first serves,” Ramanathan said after the loss.
Second seed Kevin Anderson also started his 2018 campaign on a winning note as he eased into the quarter-finals after his opponent Brazil's Thiago Monteiro retired hurt while trailing 6-7(4), 2-3. Anderson was unable to break Monteiro’s serve in the opener but his superior serving masterclass — the South African finished with 10 aces and dropped only four first-serve points (22/26) — ensured that he was always in the driver’s seat.
The US Open finalist will next meet seventh seed Mikhail Kukushkin, who edged past Serbian Djere 7-5, 7-6(5).
Fifth seeded Robin Haase rounded up the action-packed day with a 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-5 victory over Argentinian Nicolas Jarry to set up a quarter-final encounter with Paire.
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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2018 10:01:12 IST