Even the most imaginative scriptwriter could not have thought of this: Rafael Nadal versus Karan Rastogi in the second round of the Chennai Open. On a pleasant Tuesday, as the World No 2 from Spain took out Rainer Schuettler 6-4, 6-2, the Indian journeyman worked his way past Thiago Alves for a 6-3, 6-4 win on the side courts where few cared to go.
As each ticket holder passed the gates at the Nungambakkam Stadium, the obvious way was to head to the Centre Court and watch Nadal, dressed flashily in fluorescent yellow. At the same time Rastogi, yet to win a Tour match, challenged Alves with heart.
And if one thought it was just the fans who were excited at the prospect of watching Nadal in flesh and blood, Rastogi also got a bit carried away. Leading 4-1 in the second set, the Indian suddenly realised he would run onto Nadal if he won. "Sure, I got distracted at that stage," said Rastogi just after the match.
For someone winning his first ever match in an ATP event after getting a wild card, this was a big day. "After a very patchy year behind me, to win a match like this is fantastic. I did struggle a bit early on against Alves, but I made sure I did not lose focus," said Rastogi.
In a match littered with service breaks and reminiscent of women's tennis, Rastogi was very much the underdog, taking on the clay-courter from Sao Jose do Rio Preto (Brazil). Rastogi was broken in the very first game, but clawed his way back. Within five games, Rastogi understood his opponent's game. Alves was stroking hard from the back court, but he did not really have a winner in his repertoire. And Rastogi, on a high after winning a Futures title last week, played solid tennis.
In the second set, Alves was tired and all his grunting had no effect. Yet, for someone ranked 106th in the world, he did fall short after leveling at 4-4. In the very next game, Rastogi came out smoking and forced another break. He sealed victory at 6-4, when Alves netted a backhand. "For most Indians, playing Nadal or (Roger) Federer is a dream. I am just going to enjoy myself when I play Nadal and not worry about what he is going to do," said Rastogi.
Meanwhile, as Nadalmania gripped Centre Court, fans were swooning over the flamboyant Spaniard's game. There were any number of oohs and aahs as Rafa treated the gathering to good tennis. "It was the first match of the season and I did not play 100 per cent. But yes, I feel good with myself," said Nadal. Asked if he took Schuettler lightly, Nadal replied in the negative. "Schuettler is a very good player and there are no easy matches at the start of the season," he said.
Talking about the crowd support and playing Rastogi in the next round, Nadal was modest. "I love the crowd support and it is very nice people come to cheer me. The Indian guy is playing good tennis," said Nadal.
Earlier Carlos Moya, the original romantic relic for Chennai fans, struggled early on but made sure he was not going to let first round opponent Alexander Waske do any damage. Waske, 31, had lost in the first round here last year. On Tuesday, he tried a lot of unconventional stuff, hitting volleys and drop shots, not allowing Moya any rhythm to settle down.
But then, Moya has seen it at all so many times. It was just a matter of time before he started hitting the piledriver forehand with depth, and the inside out drive coming handy in tough situations.
As one who has won the title twice here before, Moya knows that, with Nadal present, he remains in the backdrop. But such is the bonding between Spaniards, Moya was there to see Nadal soak in the atmosphere and win his match.
Results (1st round): Fabrice Santoro walkover David Skoch; Olivier Patience bt Bjorn Phau 6-4, 6-4; Carlos Moya bt Alexander Waske 7-6 (7/3), 6-3; Davide Sanguineti bt Konstantinos Economodis 6-4, 6-3; Stefan Koubek bt Bartolome Salva-Vidal 2-6, 6-3, 7-5; Rafael Nadal bt Rainer Schuettler 6-4, 6-2; Karan Rastogi bt Thiago Alves 6-3, 6-4.