Title favourite Soderling will not have it easy

By Anand Philar, IANS,

Chennai : For reasons other than his status as the highest ranked player in the singles draw, top seed Robin Soderling of Sweden starts as an overwhelming title favourite in the $400,000 ATP Aircel Chennai Open tennis tournament commencing here Monday.

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The eighth ranked 25-year old Soderling will be arriving here fresh from his maiden win in 13 meetings against Roger Federer whom he beat in an exhibition tournament at Abu Dhabi Friday before losing to Rafael Nadal in the final.

Soderling’s claim to fame, thus far, has been the upset victory against ‘clay king’ Rafael Nadal in the pre-quarter-finals of French Open last year. He lost to Federer in the final that presented the Swiss maestro the only Slam trophy missing in his showcase. In the process, Soderling underlined his growing stature in men’s tennis as he broke into top-10 last year.

If seedings hold, then Soderling will be up against Stanislas Wawrinka, the third seed and 21st ranked player from Switzerland in the quarter-finals. Wawrinka, the Lausanne-born 24-year old, who lost to Soderling in Abu Dhabi last week, has had a fairly good 2009 with a victory over Federer at Monte Carlo, and is slated to meet Indian Davis Cupper Rohan Bopanna in the first round.

Bopanna is one of two Indian wild card entries and at 29 years of age, will have to play out of his skin to get past Wawrinka. “It will be a tough match and I am counting on the home support,” remarked Bopanna during the draw ceremony Saturday. But then, it will require much more than an adrenaline rush for him to advance.

Placed in the bottom half of the draw is the main home hope, Somdev Devvarman, the surprise finalist last year. Along with Bopanna, the 24-year old Chennai-educated Devvarman was instrumental in putting India back in the Davis Cup World Group last year, and he would need to reproduce that inspirational performance against Germany’s Rainer Schuettler in the first round.

Schuettler, at 33, is in the autumn of his career that saw him reach No.5 in 2004, but since then, it has been a gradual slide as he dropped out of the top-100 in 2007 before recovering to his present 85.

However, Schuettler is no stranger to Chennai, having first played here in 1997 when the tournament was shifted from New Delhi and a semi-finalist last year when he conceded a walk-over to Devvarman.

The bottom-half of the draw also includes second seed and defending champion Marin Cilic of Croatia, the second highest ranked player here at 14, besides the fourth seeded Serb, Janko Tipsarevic with the two expected to clash in the semi-finals.

While the 21-year old Cilic, who beat No.2 Andy Murray en route to the quarter-finals of the US Open last year, is scheduled to meet Russia’s Igor Kunistyn first up, Tipsarevic will take on the sentimental favourite Carlos Moya of Spain, a wild card entry, in what promises to be an intriguing first round contest.

Moya, winner here in 2004 and 2005, is said to be on his last visit here and has always produced his best in Chennai where he enjoys a huge fan following. His marathon and stirring semi-final clash in 2008 against Nadal is still remembered and obviously, the 33-year old Spaniard would like to sign off in style.

Having said that, winner-spotting remains a hazardous pastime given the high level of competition in men’s tennis and the discerning feel that at least half-a-dozen players have it in them to come through the 32-man draw unscathed.

In the doubles competition, Indian interest would be on the third-seeded tandem of Mahesh Bhupathi – Bopanna besides the two wild card combinations of Devvarman – Sanam Singh and Yuki Bhambri – Moya.