In the sapping, hot and humid conditions of Lucknow, the Indian Davis Cup team prepares for a rebound. For the first time in the tournament’s 123-year history, India is competing in World Group II, the third rung of the elite international competition. This is the lowest India has ever been.
Long gone are the days when India punched above its weight to finish as runners-up three times, in 1966, 1974 and 1987. Now, as the team gets set to host Morocco over the weekend, the aim will be to try and make the first step to get back to World Group I.
However, India’s non-playing captain Rohit Rajpal asserted that playing in a lower division is not the only worry for Indian tennis.
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On Thursday, as he announced his team for the tie against the African side – Rohan Bopanna will headline the squad while Sumit Nagal will lead the singles charge – Rajpal said that there is a gap in the production of quality players.
“Unfortunately, after [the current crop of players], there is a big gap,” Rajpal said at a press conference at the Mini Stadium in Lucknow, the venue for the tie.
“If you look at India’s history, players have always come. Ramesh [Krishnan] came, then Leander [Paes followed]. So a pipeline was there by itself. [Now] there is a gap in the pipeline.”
“We have a good presence at the Davis Cup. But now it’s time to convert them into wins. We shouldn’t have to depend on luck or some points for it. We have to make sure that our pipeline of players is strong,” he added.
One of the main reasons why India dropped down to World Group II though was with the organisers of the event, the International Tennis Federation’s decision to do away with the previous zonal format (India competed in Asia/Oceania) and make it a global group.
But after losing to the Holger Rune-led Denmark in the World Group I playoff in March, India dropped to the lower division.
“Unfortunately, the format changed,” said Rajpal. “Many countries in the world are objecting to it. One bad weekend and you can come down to Group II in the playoffs.”
Morocco, on paper, are easier opponents for India. Their highest ranked player is the world No 465 Elliot Benchetrit – who is much further down the line than India No 1 Nagal (world No 156) and Mukund Sasikumar (No 365).
However, India will be under pressure to win the tie after being relegated to World Group II. And the weather conditions do not make matters easy for the hosts.
“These are extremely humid conditions,” Rajpal said. “I mean, forget about the players, but even for us, while we were standing there, we were drenched from top to bottom. We needed to go and change our socks, while not even playing.”
Bopanna, who is coming fresh off a memorable run at the US Open where he became the oldest finalist, is expected to fare better considering New York was hot and humid as well.
Meanwhile, Nagal who has just returned from relatively better weather conditions when he was runner-up at the ATP Challenger in Tulln, Austria, had to acclimatise to the heat.
Nagal is expected to lead the singles line-up with Mukund – who will be making his Davis Cup debut. For the lone-doubles match – the third rubber of the tie which takes place on Sunday – Bopanna is likely to pair up with Yuki Bhambri. The uncapped Digvijay Pratap Singh is also in the team.
They will be coming up against a Moroccan team that is entering the contest in the backdrop of a tragedy back home.
On the evening of 8 September, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck various locations, including the capital Marrakesh, killing over 2,000 people.
“It’s very difficult for us to be away in this very tough moment,” said Morocco’s non-playing captain Mehdi Tahiri. “We would love to be there with our people to help and share these difficult moments with them.”
Going in as underdogs, Morocco are aware of the challenge that lies ahead of them. The team arrived a week before the tournament to get acclimated to the conditions and are optimistic about turning up on Saturday.
The last time Lucknow hosted a Davis Cup tie was in February 2000, before Bopanna had won his first cap for India, and four months before Singh was born. On September 16 and 17, India will start the climb back up the tennis ladder.
India vs Morocco matches
Saturday, September 16
Match 1: Sasikumar Mukund vs Yassine Dlimi
Match 2: Sumit Nagal vs Adam Moundir
Sunday, September 17
Match 3: Yuki Bhambri/Rohan Bopanna vs Elliot Benchetrit/Younes Lalami Laaroussi
Match 4: Sumit Nagal vs Yassine Dlimi
Match 5: Sasikumar Mukund vs Adam Moundir
India: Sumit Nagal, Sasikumar Mukund, Digvijay Pratap Singh, Yuki Bhambri, Rohan Bopanna
Morocco: Elliot Benchetrit, Yassine Dlimi, Adam Moundir, Walid Ahouda, Younes Lalami Laaroussi