Dutifully, the crowd at the Balewadi Sports Complex went silent before Marin Cilic – the top seed – could begin his first match at the Tata Open Championship. That silence was broken by a hushed gasp of awe. The Croat, standing at a tall 6-foot-6 started the match with an ace that flashed 216 kmph on the shot clock. So far, that was one of the fastest that had been measured since the tournament began earlier in the week. It would was a number that would go up.
But you could sense mixed feelings in the crowd. At one end you had the World No.6, a winner at the 2014 US Open, and the biggest player to attend India’s only ATP level event this year. On the other side of the court though, was local lad and India No.2 Ramkumar Ramanathan.
The 23-year-old was always expected to struggle against player of Cilic’s ability, for a whole 142 ranking spots separated the two. But Ramkumar does have the experience of playing a top-10 player. Back in July he had gotten the better of then World No.8 Dominic Theim at the grass courts of the Antalya Open.
Yet there is a huge difference in playing Thiem on a surface he doesn’t like, and coming up against Cilic in conditions he prefers. And the Croat started his first match of 2018 with that confidence, getting an early break against Ramkumar and not losing a single point on his serve till his fourth service game. He would eventually take only an hour and 15 minutes to register a 6-4, 6-3 win.
“These were beautiful conditions to play, it was not humid and there was no wind,” he says. “I felt that my level was good and I was serving well.”
His service game had indeed been problematic for Ramkumar, but the maverick Indian, the clear underdog in the contest, did put up a brave and aggressive stand.
With Cilic serving for the first set at 5-3, the Chennai lad challenged the Croat’s serve and managed to earn a break point and convert a break point.
“I had to maintain my focus from there and not slip because Ramkumar was playing a good aggressive game,” Cilic says.
Ramkumar’s service game started finding momentum, and he employed a serve-and-volley game that he has developed over the past year. It was the same style that had helped him overcome Roberto Carballes Baena in the first round.
And he began that trend from his first game itself. At 30-15, the World No.148 launched a strong serve wide of Cilic’s backhand. The Croat did manage to get a return, but Ramkumar had already made his way up to the net and coolly tapped home.
“Ramkumar was serving well and he has good pace on his first serve,” says Cilic. “And he also has a strong forehand to go with it.”
Ramkumar was taking his chances against Cilic, but the 29-year-old was simply too strong. His groundstrokes were fast and deep, and exploited the Indian’s weak backhand game to get his season to a winning start.