There was a familiar sight on Saturday as Rohan Bopanna walked on court brandishing the national flag. It’s a common sight to mark the close of a Davis Cup tie. This one in the national capital ended in favour of the Indians. The 4-0 result against Denmark was the first time since beating the Netherlands in Jaupur in 1996 that India had defeated a European team, bringing unmistakable joy at the Delhi Gymkhana Club – the venue for the tie. But there was also a very real sense of relief.

Denmark was the clear underdog in the tie, but an upset in the World Group 1 Playoff would have seen India drop down to the lower division of the competition for the first time ever. The players too were aware of that danger.

“The players and all of us realised how important this tie was, more so because we could have been relegated to Group 2,” said team coach Zeeshan Ali to\ “We all realised how important it was to stay in Group 1, because only that gives the opportunity to get to the World Group.”

The win did come, and India has confirmed a berth in Group 1 for at least this year. But one need just to look back to the Davis Cup tie last September, a 3-1 loss to hosts Finland, to realise that this may not be the last time India could find itself struggling to stay in this division of the Davis Cup.

The organisers, International Tennis Federation, tweaked the rules last year to remove the Zonal demarcation to Group 1 to allow teams to face others in the same division around the world.

India, for the years spent outside the elite World Group – now called ‘Finals’ – were backyard bullies, so to speak. Teams from the erstwhile Asia/Oceania Group 1 were easier to handle – but by no means walkovers – Uzbekistan, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Korea (depending on if their main players were available), China and Chinese Taipei.

In fact, the names listed above were the teams India beat since 2014 to make it to seven consecutive World Group Playoffs. Once the ITF changed the format, India was drawn to face a Finnish team led by talented youngster Emil Ruusuvuori.

“The new rule makes it much more difficult for India. (Since 2014) we’ve reached the World Group Playoffs each year and we’ve been very lucky to have done that with the ranking our players have had. It’s been a great performance from the players to have been getting us to the [World Group] playoffs, but with the new rules coming in it’s going to be a lot tougher for us,” Ali added.

For the tie in September this year, there is a pool of 11 other teams India could be drawn to play against, which include Canada, Finland, Colombia, Brazil, Japan, Czech Republic, Austria, Chile, Portugal, and Switzerland.

“For the next round we could end up playing Canada, or we could play a Colombia or a South American country in South America – where it’s going to be hell in terms of the conditions and crowd. Earlier we could sit back and say it’s just the Asian teams we need to worry about.”

It’s facing a team like Canada which Ali fears, given the possibility of World No 9 and 13 Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov respectively playing the tie.

Players need to step up

The only way to tackle the troubles that have come with this new format is, quite simply, for the current crop of players to buck up.

India’s leading player per rankings is world No 170 Ramkumar Ramanathan, followed by No 239 Sumit Nagal, and Prajnesh Gunneswaran (278). Yuki Bhambri, who recently returned to the tour after knee surgery is at 587 at the moment but is, of course, a better player than that.

“Today we have a number of players who can play all three surfaces,” said India’s doubles star Bopanna after the Denmark tie.

“In singles, if it’s grass I know Ramkumar is comfortable. If it’s hard, Prajnesh and Yuki can play. If it’s clay, Sumit is there. We have a good variety of players. This is what we need to build on. This is what we have. What we have is what we’ve got and this is what we’ve got to fight with.”

Indeed, it is a talented bunch of players, but there’s still a vast gulf between them and the likes of Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov, for instance.

“To reach the World Group, the team needs to have at least two players in the top 50 or top 100. That even goes for the round we are in right now,” Ali explained.

“If you’re going to be playing against teams like Canada with two Top 20 players, we need some players who are highly ranked. It makes a big difference psychologically. Ramkumar is a good player, no doubt, Prajnesh is a good player, Yuki is a very good player. But there’s a big difference when you’re a good player ranked in the top 200, or ranked within the top 20.”

Consistency, at a high level, is key, Ali said.

“The players will need to buckle up, start doing better in bigger tournaments and be consistent to increase their rankings.”

Later this week, the ITF will make the draw for the World Group 1 ties to take place in September. India can hope for another home tie, but there’s a chance the opponent may not be as forgiving as the Danes were. And if that is the case, playing Playoff ties to stay in this division may be the new reality for India – a three-time finalist – at the Davis Cup.