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Chance for Indian Youngsters to Shine on Big Stage

Indian youngsters, led by Yuki Bhambri, will look to exploit the familiar home conditions and start the new season on a high even as Wimbledon finalist and world number six Marin Cilic will start as favourite at the inaugural Tata Open Maharashtra, beginning here on Monday

PTI

Updated:December 31, 2017, 8:27 PM IST
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Chance for Indian Youngsters to Shine on Big Stage
File image of Indian Tennis star Yuki Bhambri. (Getty Images)
Pune: Indian youngsters, led by Yuki Bhambri, will look to exploit the familiar home conditions and start the new season on a high even as Wimbledon finalist and world number six Marin Cilic will start as favourite at the inaugural Tata Open Maharashtra, beginning here on Monday. It's easier said than done for the home players since there cant be drastic progress in their game overnight but Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan did enjoy stupendous success against top players in 2017, raising hopes.

Apart from these two senior Pros, Sumit Nagal will also compete in the singles main draw after coming through qualifying stage. Nagal will make his debut on the ATP World Tour at this event, which moved out of Chennai due to financial issues. Much more is expected from the doubles draw, which will have four Indian pairs competing. Bhambri enjoys an unbeaten run on the tennis courts at the Balewadi Sports Complex since October 2015.

The 25-year-old has won 10 matches here on the trot, pocketing two Challenger titles here but the level of opponents will be completely different at the ATP 250 event, fielding five top-50 players. The Delhi lad could not have asked for an easier draw as he opens his 2018 campaign against local boy Arjun Kadhe, who has returned to professional circuit only this year after completing graduation degree from University of Oklahoma and is ranked below 600.

For long, India have been looking for a singles player who would compete on the big stage and inspire new generation. When Bhambri won the 2009 junior Australian Open and was ranked world number one, a lot of expectations were riding on him but did not materialise. He has the game but lack of support coupled with injuries marred his progress. Bhambri is India's number one tennis player but he is still without a regular coach, who would travel with him on Tour.

Nevertheless, Bhambri on his own has managed to break the top-100 barrier and will carry home hopes, irrespective of the tough field. Going by recent form and fitness, he is expected to reach
at least the quarterfinals and may have to contend with world number 81 Pierre-Hugues Herbert from France after getting past Kadhe. Ramkumar, who shocked the world number eight Dominic
Thiem at Antalya Open, has been drawn to meet Spains Carballes Baena, the world number 108, in his opening round.

The gritty Chennai boy will run into Cilic, if he crosses first hurdle. Its time that Ramkumar, who is aggressive and has a fearsome inside out forehand, makes his presence felt at the biggest tennis event in India. Mere doing well on the Challenger circuit will not take him to the Grand Slams. He has shown promise but perhaps needs to have more faith in his talent. A win over a player of Thiem's caliber would not come, if he did not have it in him.

With that win, the mental barrier has been broken and it must be taken forward. He has got tremendous support from TNTA, which has taken care of his training in Spain. Nagal joined his senior Davis Cup colleagues in the main draw after battling past Spain's Adrian Menendez Maceiras 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in the final qualifying round. Prajnesh Gunneswaran though fell at the final hurdle following a 5-7, 5-7 defeat at the hands of top seed Brazilian Thiago Monteiro.

Nagal had ended the year on a high by winning the Bengaluru Open and has carried the good form into the fresh season as he is set to make his debut on the ATP World Tour. He will be up against another qualifier from Belarus Ilya Ivashka, who defeated Carlos Taberner. Cilic, who suffered a shock second round defeat in the last edition in Chennai, did not end the season on great note,
losing all three matches at season-ending finale in London but ended a runner-up to Roger Federer at the Wimbledon.

The six feet six inches Croat has beaten most of the players in the field, including defending champion Roberto Bautista Agut, in 2017 and barring an upset, is unlikely to be challenged much before the semifinal stage. He managed to win only one title on the Tour Istanbul Cup out of three finals in 2017 and it is the easiest of draw for him to win a trophy at the start of the season. Bautista-Agut, the world number 20, will be under pressure to defend his points even as he is the only player in the singles draw to have won two titles in 2017 Chennai and Winston Salem Open.

Another hot contender would be US Open finalist and second seed Kevin Anderson, the world number 14 from South Africa. He had a breakthrough performance at the last Grand Slam of the year, losing to the great Rafael Nadal in the final. He had also ended a runner-up at the Citi Open, where he lost the trophy to world number eight Alexander Zverev of Germany. Apart from these three, the other top-50 players in the draw are Benoit Paire (41) and Robin Haase (42).

India will have lot of interest in doubles where nine Indians are in the fray. Legendary Leander Paes and his partner Purav Raja have been pitted against defending champions Rohan Bopanna and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan. Its a match which could easily been reserved for a final, due to obvious reasons. Paes, at 44, is not winning much on the ATP World Tour, but the sheer passion for the game is still driving the legend. There is a strong possibility that it would one of the last times that fans will see him play at home since there are not many events India.

Had it not been for timely effort of MSLTA, India would have lost the only ATP World Tour event it hosts.

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| Edited by: Madhav Agarwal
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