Even a minute before 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova stood at her mark to serve on Championship Point, the digital signboards around the court at SDAT Tennis Stadium, Nungambakkam, started flashing the message: “Congratulations!” The final wasn’t done yet, the last point can often be the hardest. Especially when it is for the biggest title in your young career yet. The crowd murmured as the signboards kept going for a few seconds. ‘Look they are already wishing her!’ ‘The match isn’t even over.’
But perhaps, it was tennis destiny. After a superb rally, fitting for the fantastic tennis that preceded it for nearly two hours and 40 minutes, Fruhvirtova saw the ball go beyond the baseline. She first sunk to the court on her back and then turned around on her knees to put press her face down, as the emotions burst out. The Czech teenager had done it. At the end of what had already been a dream week, there was the crowning moment.
A cursory handshake followed with the veteran Magda Linette at the end. The third seed had given it all, but her body didn’t cooperate with her mind in the final set and Fruhvirtova mounted a brilliant comeback to win the Chennai Open WTA 250 title 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Even when the player names were announced at the start of the evening it was clear that the 17-year-old had more fans behind her. “Come on Linda!” was the most common refrain, while there were a few “Come on Fru!” chants thrown in as well.
And in the end, “Nothing but love for Chennai,” said the teenager in the post-match presentation. For most of the evening Chennai had nothing but love for Linda.
The evening started with a nervy opening game for Fruhvirtova. She missed an absolute sitter of an overhead smash but managed to hold serve nevertheless. Linette, the 30-year-old former world No 33, was hitting the ball much more crisply in the opening exchanges. Break points in the third game woke Fruhvirtova’s backhand up and she won a really good rally to force deuce and hold serve to shed the early jitters. In a sight now familiar to the fans in Chennai, Fruhvirtova then urged the crowd on to rally behind her after a fantastic point in another tough service game.
But all through the first set, it was Linette who held the control over proceedings, reeling off good service holds and eventually getting the one break that mattered.
The second set saw Fruhvitova fight back as one had come to expect. The serve was still not troubling Linette often enough but the backhand (remember that backhand) and the forehand (remember that too, actually) kept coming to her aid in the biggest moments.
The second set went to Fruhvirtova and she let out a roar more in relief than in joy but even at that point, you sensed that it was a matter of time before fatigue started kicking in.
Coming into the match, Linette had spent just four hours and 54 minutes on court while Fruhvirtova had been in the middle, in the searing Chennai heat and humidity, for eight hours and six minutes. Linette also had the advantage of practically having an off on Saturday as the aforementioned Chennai weather ended Katie Swan’s semifinal early. On the other hand, the Czech youngster had to battle back from 2-4 down in the final set to beat Nadia Podoroska 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 in two hours and 53 minutes.
And soon enough, she was down 1-4 in the decider against Linette. Surely, not again? After getting broken in Game 3, Fruhvirtova stood at the baseline, bent double. The crowd, by now supporting both players during their tough points, was invested in this big time.
Hang on. The Polish player, just as it looked like she would run away with it, called for a medical timeout at 4-1 up to get some treatment on her right hamstring region. And that, as it would turn out, was the window of opportunity Fruhvirtova needed.
Back after the break, Linette moved around slower on court but still connected some good groundstrokes. She even had a break point to go up 5-1 up after a stunning lob down the line. And then missed a glorious chance on second serve to seal the deal for a double break.
Buoyed by this second chance, the youngster sprang back to life to reel off game after game. 2-4, 3-4, 4-4... and then a break of serve for Fruhvirtova to complete a sensational comeback on her own serve. She had done it again, fighting back from the brink in the deciding third set.
“I was feeling good in my game, and I knew that I could do a good result here, but it was much better than we all probably expected,” Fruhvirtova said in the press conference after the match. “I’m pretty much in shock. It feels amazing, and I feel like it’s a great start for me to keep building on this.
“It was still just one break [in the third set] and [Linette] had a chance to go up for 5-1, and that would be really bad. So I think the fact that I went 2-4, it helped me, I still had a chance. ... I just started believing again and being confident, just fighting for every point.”
Every time she was down, every time she played a good point, the near full house rallied behind the Czech teen and she felt that energy in the end.
“The best atmosphere I ever played in, definitely something to remember,” she added.
In the decider, it was all about heart as much as about her game. She could have easily decided that reaching the final in a week where not many (including herself) expected her to, was a big enough achievement. But she dug deep to find a way and keep up her impressive three-set record.
“I just joke when I play a three-setter to my coach, that ‘yes I just want to get my three-set stats better’. It is just that I never give up no matter what the score is. I just keep fighting, I think that’s what makes a difference lot of the times. I don’t know, maybe I just to win a little bit more at these times. I just fight a little bit more and the differences are small.”
Indeed, those small differences make the biggest impact in elite tennis. And it is in that direction that this youngster, part of a rising group of female tennis players from her country that includes her younger sister Brenda who had won a ITF title earlier in the day, is firmly headed in. Elite, entertaining tennis.
Fruhvirtova’s triumph in Chennai has helped her jump to No 74 in the rankings, making her the youngest player in the top 100 (while her sister Brenda, aged 15, is in the top 200).
Her previous big breakthrough had come in Miami earlier in the year, when she defeated a top 30 player in Elise Mertens. And in the aftermath, Fruhvirtova had spoken of her career goals.
“I have always answered that [question of what her goals are] I want to reach No 1,” she said. “I want to win Grand Slam titles, which hasn’t changed.”
It is sometimes an exercise fraught with risk to predict greatness in sport. And Linda Fruhvirtova has a long way to go before achieving any of those dreams in a WTA field that throws curveballs at us every other week. But she showed match after mtach in Chennai that she has the game and heart for it. She has the swagger too, and a star dust that makes fans root for an athlete. She knows how to conduct the crowd when she has to. And most of all, she has the fight in her.
The first WTA Tour title just a few months after turning 17. It could just be the start of something special.