Over the weekend, the tennis court at the Mini Stadium in Lucknow had seen a lot. It saw rain, it saw towels being used to soak up puddles of water on the hard court. It saw towels being used to soak up the sweat, as players sprinted from one corner of the court to the other under tough, humid conditions.
But what the court also saw was an India jersey being put to rest as a Davis Cup career spanning 21 years came to an end.
On Sunday, Rohan Bopanna paired up with Yuki Bhambri to beat Morocco’s Elliot Benchetrit and Younes Lalalmi Laaroussi 6-2, 6-1 in what was his final apperance – as a player – in the elite team competition.
The win though, put India up 2-1 in the tie, and later Sumit Nagal secured the win with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Yassine Dlimi. Digvijay Pratap Singh was handed a debut as well in the dead rubber. He beat Walid Ahouda 6-1, 5-7, 10-6 to give India a 4-1 win in the World Group II tie.
With the win, India have qualified for the World Group I playoff that will take place next year.
India headed into the second day with the score at 1-1 after play on Saturday. They knew that they had to bring it in. And as expected, their doubles specialist Bopanna played an instrumental role in doing so and give them a lead in the tie for the first time.
“I’m sad to be leaving the Davis Cup team, but also simultaneously proud to have played for such a long time. It’s been a great journey, a great learning experience,” said Bopanna after the match.
“It was definitely emotional, especially when I saw my family sitting there,” he added.
Morocco managed to go 1-1 in the first set after they were able to hold on Benchetrit’s serve, but Laaroussi was unable to hold – that remained a trend throughout the doubles match.
Almost decisive in swinging the momentum in their favour for the rest of the match, Bopanna served the fifth game to make it 4-1. Benchetrit, his team’s highest-ranked player, did fight back to hold the serve in the next game but it was perhaps the only mini-fightback they could manage.
The Indians pushed on from the momentum they built in the first set, and though Bhambri’s serve was challenged in the third game, the Indians held on when it mattered. The finished off the second set in 37 minutes to go 2-1 up in the tie.
As Bopanna collected his 13th doubles win at the Davis Cup (23rd when including his singles record), the stadium stood in unison and a team far, far inexperienced without him, said their goodbyes. The Morrocan team too, aware of significance of the occasion, greeted the doubles world No 7. With an Indian flag to hold, on the shoulders of the youngsters, he thanked the crowd.
Although Bopanna had a memorable run at the US Open where he became the oldest male finalist at a Grand Slam in the Open Era, the 43-year-old had clarity about his future at the Davis Cup. He remains optimistic about guiding the team in some other capacity and about India’s future at the Davis Cup, especially with Nagal climbing up the ranks.
“I did not think about changing my mind [about ending his Davis Cup career],” said Bopanna. “The feeling is very different when you are playing [at the Davis Cup] and at a Grand Slam. Here, you are representing your country.”
He added: “In 2002, I played a dead-rubber match like [Singh] did today. I am going out with two guys making their debut in the team. So, I think there is a lot of good for Indian tennis.
“These guys got the opportunity here. Now, Sumit is more well-placed in the team. He has matured and grown a lot as a player,” he added.
Later in the day, Nagal expectedly secured the tie for India with a straight-set victory in the reverse singles match against Dlimi.
The Moroccan, who had given his team their solitary point with a win over Sasikumar Mukund in the opening match on Saturday, was outclassed by the 156-ranked Nagal.
Dlimi was broken twice by Nagal, who won the opening set 6-3. With the same scoreline in the second set, Nagal won his second singles match of the tie.
Later, Singh made it 4-1 to end the tie that will be remembered mostly as the last for the man from Coorg.