The 19th-ranked Indian team start off as the favourites against the visiting New Zealand in the Davis Cup Asia/Oceania Group I first round tie, to be held from February 3-5 in Pune. The hosts are not only ranked 14 places above the Kiwis in the Davis Cup team rankings, but also boast of a 5-3 lead in their head-to-head with their last win coming in their last meeting in the Group I Asia/Oceania semi-final in Christchurch, in 2015.
To tie it all off utmost favourably, the core aspect of team strength also sways in India’s favour. But thanks to an untimely injury-related interjection on the eve of the start of the tie, it’s also the one area that has got muddled.
Derailment of carefully constructed team composition
The unexpected injury to Saketh Myneni, who was to partner Leander Paes in the doubles rubber and who has since been replaced by Vishnu Vardhan, has split open the potentiality of the outcome between the two teams. And, the uncertainty of this unwelcome development affects Paes the most.
The senior member of the squad, who is playing under advisement to hang up his boots after this tie, is aiming to surpass Italian Nicola Pietrangali’s record of most wins in doubles rubbers. Both Pietrangali and Paes are currently tied with 42 wins and 12 losses each, though the Italian has played in more ties (66) as compared to Paes’s 54. Teaming up with Myneni then gave Paes – and the Indian team – an edge over the New Zealand doubles outfit of Artem Sitak and Michael Venus, who too are a nascent pairing at best.
Ideally, Myneni and Paes too made for an unorthodox combination warranted by the selectors’ opining, but they did have time – albeit limited – on their hands to get accustomed to the other’s working as a part of the tune-up leading to the tie. Thus, despite that Vardhan isn’t new to the Davis Cup or the doubles format, or partnering Paes for that matter, his inclusion, merely a few hours before the start of the tie, doesn’t give enough time for either player to alter the flow of preparations as each would want to.
Having said so, Vardhan’s being brought back into the team has a better viability of the partnership working in tandem as opposed to Rohan Bopanna being recalled, given the bad blood that continues to spurt between the 36-year-old and the selection officials. While indeed Bopanna was considered as Myneni’s replacement, his understandably indifferent remarks indicated his vexation with the administrators. This, in turn, in spite of being unintended, could have potentially spilled onto the team, thereby causing another unnecessary furore about the team’s inner working.
The singles field taking charge
The onus to keep the team in contention to advance to the Asia/Oceania Group I semi-final to be played later in July therefore falls, more than usual, on the players leading the team’s singles fray. The presence of both Ramkumar Ramanathan and Yuki Bhambri is a cementing factor to help India get on board with singles results coming the team’s way.
The 22-year-old Ramanathan had a memorable outing in his debut year for India in the tournament last year. He did well, as he was expected to, against the South Koreans in the Group I Asia/Oceania semi-final in July 2016. But it was in his gutsy singles rubber against Spain’s Feliciano Lopez in the World Group Play-off in September last year that Ramanathan stamped his spirit for the nation. Though he went on to lose the rubber in four sets, with his inexperience eventually flailing against the 35-year-old’s seasoning, he forced Lopez to rethink his strategy and replot his tactics more than once in that encounter.
Bhambri’s selection into the team is a comeback of sorts after he was side-lined with injury last year, for most of the regular tennis season and the entirety of India’s Davis Cup schedule. The 24-year-old’s addition has positively coincided with his blistering performances at the Chennai Open and in the Australian Open qualifying round, where he narrowly missed making the main draw. That Bhambri is back in form and is also playing healthy is the key for India, since he will be opening the tie on Friday against Finn Tearney.
Though it has been debated extensively that India’s lack of numbers in the top-100 of the ATP rankings is hurting the team’s chances as it goes further in the Davis Cup draw, the 267th ranked Ramanathan and 368th ranked Bhambri make for a relatively stronger lineup compared to the visitors’ singles roster of Tearney and Jose Statham, who are ranked 414th and 417th in the ATP rankings respectively.
The Anand Amritraj factor
The biggest motivating factor for the team’s probable success could, however, stem from an altogether different source of purpose. That of giving Anand Amritraj, who is skippering his last Davis Cup tie, a perfect farewell.
Since taking over the reins of the Indian Davis Cup captaincy in 2013, Amritraj led the team convincingly, propping up a consistent rate of success regardless of the shortcomings that invariably halted India’s progress in the tougher stages of the draw. With him due to pass on the baton to his successor Mahesh Bhupathi, it’s quite fulfilling that his last tie should come at a place, where he led India, as a player, to their second Davis Cup final over four decades ago, in 1974, against the then Soviet Union.
The venue between the two ties, and the past and present, may have changed. But as far as the positioning of the omen goes, it looks to be auguring well for the player-turned-captain and his country of representation, which could be the final detail spelled out in the eventual result of this impending tie.