The wooden surface inside the Håkons Hall has a new look to it – if only for just this week. It was the venue for the ice hockey event at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, about a two-hour drive north of Oslo, Norway. It’s hosted numerous sporting events, even the 2004 Junior Eurovision Song Contest.
But this weekend, the around 11,500-seater will host a Davis Cup tie for the first time, in the first meeting between Norway and India in the ‘World Cup of Tennis’. Playing in an indoor court isn’t an entirely alien concept on the tour, but the Rebound Ace Synpave hard court laid out in the Håkons Hall for the World Group 1 tie has a slightly different feel.
“It plays like an indoor hard court, but it’s not exactly that, it’s artificial. It’s a slow, low-bouncing hard court,” explained Yuki Bhambri, one of the Indian players named for the tie.
“Basically, it’s a wooden surface over which they’ve laid the court. Usually, probably everyone on tour would have seen such conditions in Davis Cup when matches happen at places that aren’t traditionally tennis courts.
“We’re all getting used to it. We had our first practice here (on Monday). We just have to get used to the conditions and then the team management will figure out who plays.”
On paper, India is the higher-ranked team, placed 25 in the Davis Cup charts as opposed to Norway’s 32. But the hosts have the second biggest weapon there is in men’s tennis currently – world No 2 Casper Ruud.
The 23-year-old became a two-time Grand Slam runner-up when he lost to Carlos Alcaraz in the US Open final on Sunday. He has been named for the tie and, as things stand, is expected to compete. The Indians were even cheering for him while he played in New York, hoping he’d win the title and withdraw from the Davis Cup tie.
There still is, however, no official word yet if Ruud is indeed playing.
“We haven’t heard of anything yet, and I don’t think they will tell us before the draw. We hope he’s mentally tired. The Indian team was rooting for him to win and take a few days off and skip Davis Cup,” Bhambri said.
“But even if he is playing, the strategy is to try and win the three matches, and we are capable of doing that. Hopefully we should. That’s where Davis Cup is interesting, one guy can do some damage, but hopefully we can take advantage of the second-ranked guy.”
Each match is best-of-three set and the tie is best-of-five match. The India-Norway tie will have best-of-three set matches and a best-of-five match contest, which will include two singles matches, a lone-doubles match, followed by reverse singles.
In other words, if Ruud were to play and win his two singles matches, India could still win the two remaining singles matches, and claim the doubles rubber to win the tie 3-2.
There is a great gulf in class between Ruud and the other players competing in this tie, at least on paper.
A grand 274 places behind Ruud in the ranking charts is Ramkumar Ramanathan, India’s highest-ranked singles player. Then comes Norway’s second best player Viktor Durasovic at 325, Prajnesh Gunneswaran at 335. Prajnesh however is a former top 100 player.
Norway has also named tied-world No 1211 Lukas Hellum Lilleengen and the unranked Herman Hoeyeraal and Simen Sunde Bratholm. India’s lineup also includes Sasikumar Mukund (416), Sumit Nagal (483), Bhambri ranked at 522, and Saketh Myneni (1342 in singles).
It’s been a difficult year for the Indian players in singles, with Bhambri being the only player to have won a main draw ATP tour match when he reached the second round at the Pune event in February.
“There have been difficult situations for different players. Sumit hasn’t played a whole lot, coming back from injury. He only really started playing in April-May, and even after that he had another injury setback. He hasn’t played much but whatever he played, he still performed well. He’s won a few rounds and he’s probably just setting himself up for next year to go strong,” Bhambri said.
“Ram and Prajnesh have struggled a bit this year. But Ram (ranked 67 in doubles) has had a very good year in doubles. He’s one of those players who needs a match or two to turn things around and go on a streak.
“The morale is pretty high and everyone is confident in their own abilities. Mukund just won a 25K Futures event. Sure, we’re not knocking on the doors of top 100, but we’re still capable. They’re still good guys and they will turn it around.”
Bhambri himself returned from a long-term knee injury only this year and is slowly making his way up the rankings – particularly in doubles. He’s partnered Myneni to five Challenger and two Futures titles this year.
“The goal was to try and keep playing as much as I can. A year ago, I really thought I was done, I couldn’t see any way out. I came back for a month and then I was out for another six,” he added.
“The initial thought was easing into it. Playing a little singles, playing a little doubles just for the fact that you’re moving a lot less compared to singles. The grind is a lot easier on the body and just go with it. I wanted to play in the bigger events and not miss out on those.
“The goal really was to see if I can play through the year, see if I can get to playing some tennis. Success helps along the way, keeps you motivated. It kept me and Saketh going and one thing led to another. In terms of our doubles too it’s been great.”
Bhambri, the 2009 Junior Australian Open champion has broken into the top 100 singles ranks twice, and his doubles achievements recently have taken him to 109 currently – Myneni is on 96. And that simply gives India more options for the doubles match in the tie against Norway now that veteran doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna ruled himself out due to injury.
“There’s no guarantee that Saki and I will be playing, because we also have Ramkumar. He’s the highest rank in singles and doubles and he’s won two ATP titles with Rohan (Adelaide and Pune). So, that way we have options since there are a lot of guys who can play singles and a lot of guys who can play doubles.”
The draw ceremony is scheduled for Thursday, during which it will be known who will make the squad for the Indian team, and if Ruud will indeed be lining up for Norway.
The winner of the tie goes through to the World Group Qualifiers, and the loser will play the World Group 1 playoffs. In this away tie, India finds itself in a rather high-risk situation in terms of their Davis Cup position. Yet Bhambri chooses to look at it in a positive vein.
“It’s actually more motivational because we know that we have a chance of going back into the Qualifiers. Everybody wants to play in the World Group. It’s a prestigious event and we want to be a part of it. These are the type of ties we have to win. We’ve had success, sometimes we haven’t. For me it’s motivation, but we have to give the best we can. If we do play to the best of our abilities, I see no reason why we shouldn’t progress,” he added.
At the moment the Indians are in a race to get used to the court conditions as quickly as possible. Outside the venue, the weather just about stays above the 10 degrees Celsius-mark as the Norwegian autumn approaches.
These are decent conditions, as Bhambri puts it, at a site built for the Winter Olympics. But it’s sure to heat up on Friday and Saturday, as both teams will aim to get one step closer to the Davis Cup elite.
Matches on Friday start at 21:30 hrs IST
Matches on Saturday start at 17:30 hrs IST