Letter From Chennai

Monday, January 09, 2012 /by

[[ I asked a friend of mine who was in Chennai last week to write a little bit about his experience, to give us a sense of the atmosphere and people there. His report follows below. Vivek played competitive junior tennis but now plays just rec tennis, partly because his job as a head and neck surgeon (he practices in Manhattan) leaves him little time to play. Enjoy - PB ]]

by Vivek Gurudutt

“It is quite sultry, you know?”

Babu wasn’t lying. I had never spent much time in Chennai, but I quickly learned the humidity in the area was oppressive. 

Fortunately, though, the matches at the Aircel Open did not start until after 4 pm, when the temperature begins to drop.  The cool of the evening welcomed us as we sat in our seats behind the baseline on center court.  This was my first trip to India with my wife Amitha, and I was meeting her extended family for the first time.

I had arranged the evening of tennis as a way to get to know Amitha’s family better without the formality of visiting each person’s home.  I was hoping tennis would give us a common interest, making it easier to converse and get to know each other. But I was a little worried that not everyone would be as satisfied watching tennis as I am.

Amitha and I took our seats next to the row of her family members, at least those who were able to escape from everyday life to join us at this first ATP tournament of the year.  Babu was technically my wife’s cousin, although he was closer in age to her father.  Silver-haired,  plump, he’s an exuberant, gregarious man. He doesn’t follow tennis closely, but he’s the sort who can be easily amused, especially by something new and unfamiliar.  

Earlier in the afternoon (what’s a little heat for a diehard tennis fan?), Amitha and I had spent some time at the practice courts. We were able to watch Nicolas Almagro practicing with his coach, and Janko Tipsarevic working out with Milos Raonic.  We couldn’t know that the practice set we watched was a preview of the tournament final. Both men looked sharp, ready to start the season.

Later, as Thiemo de Bakker was leaving the court, I approached him to ask about the upcoming season.   He was kind enough to stop and talk for a few minutes, even though he had his first-round match evening.  Coming from a colder environment (de Bakker is Dutch), he had to work hard to adjust to the climate of Southern India. Like everyone else in early January, he said he was looking forward to improving his results this year. He had a winnable match, too, against Yen-Hsun Lu. I wished him well as he walked toward the locker room.

The first match we watched together on Chennai’s lone show court had Sam Querrey up against Victor Hanescu. My father-in-law was busy snapping pictures of the match, and Babu was much amused by the telltale sounds of the match. He chuckled as he watched Querrey and observed, “His shoes won’t stop squeaking!”

 “For whom are you cheering?”  I asked my wife’s cousin, Vasu. 

“Any player with a one-handed backhand!”  he replied with a smirk.  

Vasu was born and brought up in Chennai, but now lives in Colorado.  He was on vacation and visiting.  Surprisingly, he had never been to a tournament in the United States, despite playing tennis regularly. 

Vasu’s brother, Kannan, who sat alongside me, had picked up the tickets from the box office that morning as we were not able to get them over the Internet.  That was no small task, either.  Chennai is a bustling metropolis with over 4.6 million people, sprawling and difficult to traverse by car because daytime traffic often moves at a crawl.  It must have taken Kannan well over an hour to get to the stadium from his house, and then he made another, separate trip back to the grounds to meet up with us for the matches.  

As we settled in to watch,  I offered to pay for the tickets.  But Kannan said:  “We can discuss it later. Let’s watch the match.” 

Now in his mid-forties, Kannan had played competitive junior tennis. He remained in good shape despite not having picked up a racquet in over 10 years.  By the time I learned all that, Hanescu was up a set and a break.  Querrey was playing high-risk, no-reward power tennis.  He made some winners but even more unforced errors.   But serving at 4-3, Hanescu tightened and gave Querrey an opening for a break.

  Kannan and I sensed a big momentum shift as the second set knotted at 4 -all. 

“Querrey is making this interesting,” Kannan noted as Sam served his way to 40-15.

We all settled back in our seats preparing for this match to go the three-set distance.  But Hanescu battled back, broke for a 5-4 lead, and despite the skepticism both Kannan and I felt, he served it out.

With the match over, I re-introduced the topic of paying for the tickets. Kannan turned quickly and scolded me, “You are too distracted by minor things. . . You are missing the action on court!” 

As part of the post-match festivities, Hanescu had to hit three balls into the stands, as they do at most of the other ATP events.  But this being cricket-mad Chennai, Hansecu was asked to swat the balls with a cricket bat instead of a racquet.  He missed the ball with each forward swing, but made contact on the backswing – whether he was doing that just to amuse the crowd of whiffing in earnest I don’t know. But the crowd, including Babu, loved it. 

After the match, we made our way to the food court and ordered a variety of snacks, from samosas to pizza.  My wife and I were immediately drawn to a concession called Skewy’s, which boldly proclaimed to serve paneer (a type of cheese used in Indian cooking) “As you like ‘em – on a stick!”

Well, if you can have walleye on a stick in Minnesota, why not paneer on a stick in Chennai?

With our food in tow, we headed to the outer courts. 

The grounds were not very crowded this early in the tournament.  Most Indian  athletes play either of the two most popular sports in India, cricket or football (soccer).  Interest in tennis is relatively minor, which helped explain why the crowd was sparse. As in many other countries, tennis is expensive and accessible only to a fortunate few.

But the good news is that most of the fans on the grounds were in that much-coveted young (twenties or younger) demographic, suggesting that tennis is hip and there’s a real core of future tennis fans out there. My wife’s second cousin, Chitra,  is a 21-year old and had just started to get interested in tennis.  This match was her first time at a tournament and I doubt it will be her last.

Back on the outer courts, we caught the end of the match between de Bakker and Lu.   Lu had won the first set 6-3 and was up a break in the second. They were playing under the lights, but the noise of nearby traffic drowned out what cheering went on.

Lu soon closed out the match. Thiemo collected his bag and, despite having just lost, took time to sign autographs for the kids who rushed courtside.  He left the court, quietly, by himself. There was no announcement or even applause, and no  entourage to join him. 

We worked our way out of the venue.  This would be my last chance to pay for the tickets.  I confronted Kannan one last time.  He took me aside—physically moving me away from the others.  I had seen battles like this occur before in India, as friends or close relatives fought over the privilege of being the one to provide the tickets,  pick up a check in a restaurant, underwrite a trip.

When I made my last-ditch appeal to pay Kannan just smiled: “There will be time for you to pay for other things.  Not today.  Some moments you shouldn’t put a price on.” 

I couldn’t argue with him there.  My wife, sensing the gist of our discussion from a distance, privately suggested using the ticket money we had to buy something for his mother—I guess it all stays in the family.  My wife always was the smart one. 

As we walked outside the gates, a group of children rushed toward us. Not one of them could have been older than 13, and they had no money to pay for admission.  We had our tickets scanned for re-entry and gave them to the kids.  They joyfully sprinted toward the gates with their newly acquired passes.

Before getting into the car, Babu approached me and asked, “Are you satisfied?”

His genuine concern brought a smile to my face. I knew that for him this evening hadn’t been about one-handed backhands, second serves, or even squeaky shoes. I nodded, thinking:  More than you know, Babu. 

It was not a great day to be Thiemo de Bakker, but it was a good one to be me.

 

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