Not much longer than a year since Kolkata last greeted men from beyond our borders on a Tennis court, its gates were open once again. India is one of the participating host nations in the 2020 ITF Men’s World Tennis Tour and Kolkata is one of its two cities to do the honours.

Some small steps and few mini moments inside its grounds were all it would it take for the contrast to sink in.  Calcutta South Club had hosted the Davis Cup tie between India and Italy in February 2019. The venue this time around, however same, had a vastly different feel to it: the playing field, the viewing seats and most importantly, the surface. A couple of kids were seen hitting on the same grass that was used last year. The big boys were playing on clay now. More specifically, a total of 6 adjacent clay courts are being used for this tournament, of which Courts 1, 3 and 5 are for Matches and Courts 2, 4 and 6 are for Practice.  

The first day of the Mains had a total of 13 matches scheduled – 7 Singles and 6 Doubles, 4 matches on each of the 3 courts and an additional one on whichever court got relieved of its duties the earliest. Basic math. Now, you would expect the marquee players to get a more primetime slot than the 9:30 am start. But all of them were playing Doubles later in the day, so you’d be wrong. And that set up Day 1’s highest seed, Benjamin Dhoe (3) from Belgium, second-highest seeded Eric Vanshelboim (5) from Ukraine, and Asian Junior Champion, Nitin Kumar Sinha against Indian Davis Cupper, Vishnu Vardhan next to each other to inaugurate the championships.

Vishnu Vardhan got the tournament off to a start with a singles match against Nitin Kumar Sinha (Photo – Iman Guha)

Sport isn’t played on paper. But if paper did have a bearing on it, it got reflected rather soundly in the first session. Dhoe had completed inflicting defeat upon Anurag Agarwal on Court 5 by the time Sinha and Vardhan finished their opening set on Court 1. Shortly hence, Vanshelboim was packing his bags on Court 3 as he recorded the only Singles bagel set of the day in his victory over Gokul Suresh.  Court 1 had all but given up its hopes of claiming the nonpareil prestige of fielding 5 matches once Sinha took the second set against Vardhan after losing the first.

Asian Junior Champion and local favorite Nitin Kumar Sinha (Photo – Iman Guha)

Being on the field presents you with some opportunities for informal chatter besides formal interviewing. The ball boys revealed that they were from Bengal Tennis Association. As opposed to our ‘norm’, all the Tennis that they watch is merely through being primary witnesses and not through secondary media. Hence, a certain Roger Federer is unheard of by them. Federer, however, was admitted to be the favourite player to watch for Prashant Sawant from Maharashtra, a player who missed the cut for Kolkata and was practicing on Court 6, keen on regaining lost ranking points. In the coming week, he is scheduled to take part in the Gurugram Futures and play on the surface he grew up on, hard courts.

The ball boys at work (Photo – Iman Guha)

There was an incident of note in the Vanshelboim-Suresh match. At this level of competition, it is not only the absence of Hawkeye that stands out but the lack of linespeople too. So every call is made by the chair umpire, a case where responsibility and freedom go hand-in-hand. A certain ball off Suresh’s racquet went long by more than an inch. From our vantage point, it was clear as daylight, as seconded by the ballboy and a player who was watching right next to me. But the umpire wouldn’t have any of Vanshelboim’s words and marked the actual ball-mark as a shoe-mark, in a manner more pre-conceived than observed or convinced. Not that these things happen only in a Futures tournament, and neither that these things always happen in a Futures tournament (the other umpires were extremely receptive of the players’ challenges), but you still get a general idea of what the players playing in the lower rungs of the sport might lack within a match, let alone outside of it. The ITF Supervisor, Mr. Abhishek Mukherjee, who had been very cordial and helpful to me throughout the day, duly made a note of the incident when it was reported to him.

Wildcard Anurag Agarwal during his R1 match (Photo – Iman Guha)

Anyway, coming back to more formal matters, Court 1 got its hopes raised, albeit in the most unfortunate manner. The deciding set ended prematurely as Vardhan had to forfeit midway through it. He was observably fatiguing during the course of the match. Later, it was learnt that he was carrying an illness for the past couple of days. And despite perfect playing conditions, it would have been too risky for him to carry on with Doubles also on his schedule, stated he. In the meantime, Court 3 was seeing an upset and Court 5 was witnessing a battle greater than Vardhan-Sinha-esque proportions.  Unranked Faisal Qamar was taking out not-unranked Li-Wei Tan from Taipei in straight sets on the former. Abhinav Sanjeev Shanmugam was saving match points against Dhruv Sunish on the latter. He took the second set in a 24-point tiebreaker, having lost the first set in an 11-point tiebreaker to send the match into a decider and the imaginary audience into a forensic frenzy (you know how Tennis works, especially with Robbie Koenig). If you’re good at comprehending multiple timelines, you’ll know which court was leading the race by now.

Abhinav Sanjeev Shanmugam saved 5 match points to secure a R2 berth (Photo – Iman Guha)

The first Doubles match of the tournament was getting underway on Court 3. Ishaque Eqbal and Mohit Mayur Jayaprakash were going up against the pairing of Vinayak Sharma Kaza and the second-seeded player in the Singles draw (and the highest seeded Indian), Manish Sureshkumar. An imposing Aryan Goveas (7) was lining up to take on and possibly take down his challenger in S D Prajwal Dev on Court 1. I, on the other hand, was encountering its previous winner, Sinha.

Speaking of the challenges he faced during the transition from Juniors to Seniors, he cited the general difficulty of the playing field that had risen up and mentioned the added necessity to develop a weapon when you’re playing the Seniors. About his goals in the future, he said he primarily looks to improve his game, and that rankings and results are secondary to him in nature right now. Shanmugam, who soon won the decider against Sunish in the Court 5 epic, also highlighted the need to simply do the basics right and play well when questioned on his key in the third set after having been through two prolonged ones.

Reverting to important matters again. The race.  Court 3 couldn’t let go of its obsession for bagels and it now produced a bagel set for the day in Doubles as well. Kaza and Sureshkumar were the profiteers.  Meanwhile on Court 5, Chandril Sood and Lakshit Sood were hatching a masterful plan to deceive their significantly larger Canadian opponents, the fourth-seeded Doubles pairing of Raheel Manji and Kelsey Stevenson, with their genetically engineered art of perfect camouflage, also known as identical twins. They however couldn’t pull it off with as much aplomb as the Bryan Brothers do and thus succumbed in straight sets.  While on Court 1, Goveas was indeed taking down Dev, not without an arm-wrestle of a contest though. Well, once it came down to arm-wrestling there could have been only one winner. Goveas clenched it in a second-set tiebreaker.

The Sood brothers in action (Photo – Iman Guha)

Speaking of Wrestling, if it weren’t for their physiques, you couldn’t make out a player from a watcher. There’s an air of equality in and around the grounds. They’re humble enough to apologise to a photographer even when there’s no need to, or even if they weren’t at fault. They’d talk to you and ask you for pictures just as your friend next-door would. And you’d feel that this behaviour is even more pronounced when the players are visitors from other parts of the globe.

Wait, why are we deviating from the race? Perhaps, because its outcome is already a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, Dhoe was now on Court 3, this time with his Doubles partner, Maxime Mora from France, taking on Kunal Anand and Anvit Bendre. However close the second set, the match was again a straight-set affair with Dhoe notching up his second victory of the day. Vanshelboim was back too, this time on Court 5 and with a seeding of 2 with his Indian partner, Vijay Sundar Prashanth. It was his second trip to Kolkata, the previous stint being as a junior two years ago. But his second victory for the day narrowly eluded him as they fell to the Indian pair of Jatin Dahiya and Dalwinder Singh in a match tiebreak, having led by a set at the end of the first. Court 1 saw the only remaining Singles seed for the day, Niki Kaliyanda Poonacha (6) take on Rishi Reddy. Poonacha comfortably took the first set. Reddy huffed and puffed to push the second into a tiebreak but Poonacha’s added aggression coupled and powered by a greater beard density was enough to clinch it for him.

Niki Poonacha and Rishi Reddy, both trainees at the Rohan Bopanna Tennis Academy in Bengaluru (Photo – Iman Guha)

As you have already figured out by now, under the slanting sun in the skies of spring, and with Courts 2, 4 and 6 opting out, Court 3 had won the race.  Earlier winners from the day, Sinha and Shanmugam teamed up to take on the duo of Armaan Bhatia and Parikshit Somani and scored their respective twin victories rather comfortably.

In the final match for the day on Court 1, Vishnu Vardhan returned with his teammate, Arjun Kadhe. The top seeded Doubles pair was taking on Lucas Renard from Sweden and Vignesh Peranamallur from India. In a match that felt more like a handicapped two-on-one assault than a tag team battle, Renard single-handedly salvaged some serious pride for his team with his booming serves; two games that is. The top seeds were safely through. And all smiles.

Results Round-up from Day 1, March 10:

Court 1:
Nitin Kumar Sinha (Ind) bt Vishnu Vardhan (Ind) 5-7 6-2 3-0
(7) Aryan Goveas (Ind) bt SD Prajwal Dev (Ind) 6-4 7-6(4)
(6) Niki Kaliyanda Poonacha (Ind) bt Rishi Reddy (Ind) 6-1 7-6(4)
(1) Kadhe (Ind)/ Vardhan (Ind) bt Peranamallur (Ind)/ Renard (Swe) 6-2 6-0

Court 3:
(5) Eric Vanshelboim (Ukr) bt Gokul Suresh (Ind) 6-0 6-4
Faisal Qamar (Ind) bt Li-Wie Tan (Tpe) 6-3 7-5
Kaza (Ind)/ Sureshkumar (Ind) bt Eqbal (Ind)/ Jayaprakash (Ind) 6-4 6-0
Dhoe (Bel)/ Mora (Fra) bt Anand (Ind)/ Bendre (Ind) 6-2 7-6(3)
Sinha (Ind)/ Shanmugam (Ind) bt Bhatia (Ind) / Somani (Ind) 6-2 6-4

Court 5:
(3) Benjamin Dhoe (Bel) bt Anurag Agarwal (Ind) 6-1 6-1
Abhinav Sanjeev Shanmugam (Ind) bt Dhruv Sunish (Ind) 6-7(4) 7-6(11) 6-2
(4) Manji (Can)/ Stevenson (Can) bt Sood (Ind)/ Sood (Ind) 6-4 6-1
Dahiya (Ind)/ Singh (Ind) bt (2) Vanshelboim (Ukr)/ Prashanth (Ind) 2-6 6-3 10-5

All other photos below : (Credits – Iman Guha)

Vishnu Vardhan and Arjun Kadhe –

Abhinav Sanjeev Shanmugam and Nitin Kumar Sinha –

The Sood Brothers –

Raheel Manji(CAN) and Kelsey Stevenson(CAN)

Eric Vanshelboim(UKR) and Vijay Sundar Prashanth –

Aryan Goveas –

Anurag Agarwal –

Lucas Renard(SWE) and PC Vignesh –

Reigning National Champion Niki Poonacha
SD Prajwal Dev
Kaza Vinayak Sarma(L) and Manish Sureshkumar
Dalwinder Saran
Ishaque Eqbal(serving) and Mohit Mayur Jayaprakash
Faisal Qamar
Rishi Reddy
Anvit Bendre(L) and Kunal Anand
Dhruv Sunish
5th seed Eric Vanshelboim from Ukraine
3rd seed Benjamin Dhoe from Belgium
Li-Wie Tan from Taiwan

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