The time has come. The first tournament of the New Year, the Aircel Chennai Open, has laid down the gauntlet with their strongest field in years- with the participation of a total of 21 players from the top 100. Starting Jan 2nd 2012, South Asia’s premier World Tour event will enter its 17th year, and India’s only tournament will feature exclusive Men’s singles and Doubles action for 7 action-packed days.

2011 saw Swiss Number Two Wawrinka fire an early warning to his other top-10 rivals with a convincing Chennai Open win, and saw him grow from strength to strength until he was halted by injury mid-year. He beat Chennai specialist (and legend, for winning both singles and doubles of the 2008 edition) Xavier Malisse in the finals, after defending Champion Cilic was shunted out in the first round in a major upset. But the 2011 edition was famous for the comeback of India’s greatest and most successful sporting pair in the history of tennis: The Lee-Hesh Express. In a sterling display of expert volleys and quick feet, the partnership returned to form after a dry patch- thus paving the way for a very successful 2011 season, which culminated in their semi-final appearance at the prestigious World Tour Final event at O2. 
The following players will be making their presence felt at the 2012 edition, some of them very familiar, most of them top-10s at some points of time in their illustrious careers, and a few of them up and coming stars aiming to conquer- in the near future- the holy trinity of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. Even Juan Martin Del Potro began to make waves in India as a young, lanky 18-year old with severe groundstrokes, after he upset and stunned veteran Carlos Moya during the 2006 ATP Mumbai Open:
The Favorites:
Stanislas Wawrinka- World Number 17 and Defending Champion 
The Swiss Number Two, an Olympic Gold medalist, forever to remain in the shadows of friend, competitor and fellow doubles partner Roger Federer- will be looking to do an encore like Marion Cilic did in 2010. Always a contender during ATP 1000 Masters events, and definitely a quarter-final specialist in Grand Slams, the Swiss player is one of the few men’s players on the tour with a lethal single-handed backhand. His game is more suited to hard courts the year around, and he often makes his presence felt at the Australian and US Opens- going out as much as thrice to compatriot Roger Federer in the fourth round of Grand Slams. Nevertheless, he looks the most consistent out of the ‘best of the rest’, and will look to get back to the top 10, and hopefully seal his first World Tour Finals Spot in 2012. 
Janko Tipsarevic- World Number 9, Top Seed for the Chennai Open in his Sixth year. 
Arguably the in-form player on the tour after an impressive year that saw him finish just short of the coveted top 8 in the ATP race, he managed to secure his first appearance at O2 at the World Tour Finals 2011 with the retirement of an injured Andy Murray after his first game. Tipsarevic, characterized by the string of beads around his neck and yellow-tinted glares during night games, went on to beat World Number One and fellow Serb Novak Djokovic in one of his two ‘dead rubber’ games, and knocked the Djoker out of the tournament- subsequently heading to the Maldives for a much-deserved vacation at the end of a grueling season. 
An impressive 53-25 record in 2011 seals him as one of the favorites to go one-up on his semi-final appearance in Chennai last year, and finish with his first Chennai Open title in six attempts. Always a bit rusty at the beginning of the year, the Serb is famed for giving the top 5 in the world a tough time- and has come very close to pulling off some massive upsets in the US Open over the years. On his day, the 27-year old is relentless and most dangerous- having upto 11 victories against top 10 players and 5 victories against Former World Number Ones. He has beaten Andy Roddick at Wimbledon 2008 and has stretched Federer to 5 sets in the 2008 Australian Open. 
Marin Cilic- World Number 26, and former two-time Champion
After winning the Chennai Open twice and reaching the semi-finals of the 2010 Australian Open, the talented Croatian’s career has taken a slight nosedive. A string of injuries and fitness worries have plagued the 23 year old, and has duly nullified his impressive explosion onto the Pro circuit in 2007 with 2 back-to-back Challenger tournament victories.  Immediately hailed as the next big thing, the Croatian justified fellow countryman Ivanesivic’s faith in him by defeating serious contenders like Henman, Roddick, Gonzalez and Del Potro (in the legendary 4th round of Australian Open 2008) over a short span of his career. For a long while, he was known as the ultimate giant-killer and a pain in the neck for most top seeds after entering the final 16 in any tournament. But his main flaw lay after that, where he would often lose to up-and-coming stars like Nishikori, Somdev and Mayer in subsequent tournaments- thus cementing him as an unpredictable, gifted assassin that thrived on bigger challenges. 
His biggest wins, of course, were 2 at the 2010 Australian Open (Del Potro and Roddick) and a massive win over favorite Andy Murray at the 2009 US Open. 
His Chennai Open record was impeccable until 2011, after defeating Wawrinka in the final of 2010 and home favorite Somdev in 2009. He is still a force to reckon with, but will need special temperament to not end up repeating his shock loss to Japanese superstar Nishikori in the first round. 
The list continues, and there is a strong string of contenders for the year’s first ATP event. The next post will detail the surprise-throwers, dark horses and young guns. On we go!

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