In the first week of March last year, on the grass courts of the Delhi Gymkhana, Indian men’s tennis team celebrated beating Denmark in a Davis Cup tie. The great significance of the win was that India avoided a plunge to a lower division and managed to stay afloat in World Group 1 of the prestigious event often dubbed the ‘World Cup’ of tennis.

Eleven months on, in a cruel twist, India was drawn to play Denmark yet again, this time as an away tie. It’s what prompted their No 1 player – the current world No 9 Holger Rune – to play the tie and win it 3-2 for his country. And for the first time ever, India have fallen down to World Group 2.

This result though does not go against the scheme of things. For years now, Indian tennis had been on a decline. Last month, the Australian Open marked the first time since 2017 that no Indian – male or female – had qualified to compete in even the singles qualification rounds of a Grand Slam. And just last November, for the first time since 2005, no Indian man was ranked in the top 300 in singles – the current No 1, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, has now climbed back to 306.

Yet, in the Davis Cup drop is where a great deal of disappointment lies.

“To me, this whole match against Denmark was a great tragedy. I’m sad and disappointed that we couldn’t pull this off,” said former Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj to Scroll.

“It’s really tragic that we, with our tennis history, three Davis Cup finals, are now in Group 2. We were a World Group team, then we got pushed to Group 1, which was bad enough already. Now going down, this is a disgrace.”

The warning bells did sound last year though. Despite the 4-0 win over the Rune-less Danish team, coming so close to the drop was not unrecognised by the Indian contingent.

“The players and all of us realised how important this tie was, more so because we could have been relegated to Group 2,” Zeeshan Ali, coach of the Davis Cup team had told this publication then. “The players will need to buckle up, start doing better in bigger tournaments and be consistent to increase their rankings.”

The rankings, at the time, had Ramkumar Ramanthan at 170 in singles, Nagal at 239, Prajnesh at 278 and Yuki Bhambri, who had just returned from knee surgery, at 587. Since then, Nagal had to take a break from the tour due to injury, Bhambri has turned towards becoming a doubles specialist and Ramkumar also appears to be leaning towards that stream.

However, Ramkumar later confirmed to Scroll that he is focused on singles and is aiming to get his old ranking back.

India has always had a rich history in doubles – all the country’s 32 Grand Slam titles (won by four players) – have come in the mixed or doubles events. And there’s no shortage of doubles talent either, with the likes of Rohan Bopanna (20), Saketh Myneni (82), Bhambri (88), Jevan Nedunchezhiyan (93) N Sriram Balaji (100) all being in the top 100 of the rankings. Ramkumar too was a top 100 doubles player until he dropped out of that range this week.

There’s even a ‘Doubles Dream for India’ project that has been supporting the players.

With that in mind, the sole doubles point in last week’s tie in Hillerød was one the Indians would have been quietly confident about. The strategy was plain and simple – target the lower ranked Danish player on either side of the doubles match to get the win.

Crucially, it’s in the team match where India have struggled in. The same happened on Saturday.

With Bopanna pairing up with Bhambri – the fifth different Indian pair in five ties – they came up with a changed Danish lineup that saw Rune being added to the rubber with partner Johannes Ingildsen (ranked 358 in doubles). This was a scratch pair put up from by the hosts, but they stormed to a straight-sets win to make the tie 2-1 to Denmark.

Rune was scheduled to play the fourth match, and he beat Nagal in two sets to secure the tie.

“Going into the tie, you would know that Rune is going to win both his singles matches, that’s a done deal. The other three are must win, that’s when the double becomes extremely crucial. It’s a big psychological advantage if you’re 2-1 up going into the reverse singles rather than being 2-1 down,” Amritraj said.

“Imagine, before the tie itself, Rune would have had pressure of winning all his matches. But if he lost the doubles, then he’d have to come out and win against Sumit who did well anyway. And then imagine the plight of the second Danish guy, who would have to come in to play at 2-2. And we could have had Ramkumar or Prajnesh there. Losing the doubles was the tragedy of the weekend,” the 70-year-old said.

“There was a time when we had a lock on the doubles. There was (Ramanathan) Krishnan and Jaidip Mukerjea, or Vijay and me later, then Leander (Paes) and Mahesh (Bhupathi). At the Pune ATP in January we had six different teams with Indians in it. And then going and losing doubles to Denmark is ridiculous.”

One of the reasons for the drop though has been the luck of the draw. The International Tennis Federation altered the Davis Cup format in 2021, changing the Group 1 demarcation from zonal to worldwide. Earlier, in the erstwhile Asia/Oceania Group 1, India would face teams like New Zealand, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and China among others. These were teams far more easier to handle. But making it a World Group 1 meant that India could face – and did – the likes of then world No 2 Casper Ruud’s Norway, former world No 40 Emil Ruusuvouri’s Finland, and now Rune’s Denmark.

It’s a much tougher proposition, yet one that Amritraj favours.

“It doesn’t make it easy, but you need to belong in the group you’re playing. Beating a big team gives you the belief. You feel you deserve to be there. Right now, if we’re in Group 2, that’s where we belong,” he said.

“If the players punch above their weight, you’re there because of great performances, that’s fine. But the basic rule of thumb is that if you don’t have two players in the top 100, it’s hard to be in the top group.”

Ali had issued a warning last year. But now that the team has dropped down to a lower division, Amritraj hopes a refreshed approach towards the sport – a long awaited one – will finally take place.

“This should be a major wake-up call. We’ve been coasting around Group 1 for a few years now, but honestly I never thought it would come to this. Now that it has, this should be a wake-up call for the whole tennis federation, tennis community in India, everybody involved in the tennis establishment,” he added.

“We’ve got some good juniors coming up, we do have enough talent. But ideally, we need more singles players. Now we make a big deal about winning a round in doubles at a Grand Slam, which is a joke. We’ve dropped our standards quite a bit.”

The updated team rankings saw India drop 14 places to 40. But the beating the country’s tennis pride has taken in the fall to World Group 2 is immeasurable.