Aktobe, a city in Kazakhastan, has no special reason to appear on the Indian news pages. It has produced a chess International Master, Olympic gold winning gymnasts, astronauts (or more accurately, cosmonauts) and Kazakhstan’s youngest millionaire. It also hosts a tennis Futures tournament.
That tournament was where Vishnu Vardhan was supposed to be when he got a call on Wednesday asking about his availability for India’s Group I Asia/Oceania first round Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in Pune, starting Friday. By a quirk of fate, Vardhan was instead in Hyderabad, in the middle of an extended mid-season training program. “My visa didn’t come on time”, he said at the press conference on the eve of the tie against New Zealand in Pune. “I was supposed to be in Kazakhstan, but there was a mistake from my end, and I couldn’t go.”
It meant that a four week mid season training session was extended into six weeks. Late on Wednesday night, Vardhan got the call asking about his availability for the tie. A day later, he found himself wearing a saffron turban at the foot of a statue of Shivaji Maharaj, in the baking hot sun, as part of the draw ceremony for the Davis Cup.
Not that Vardhan would be complaining. Called into the Davis Cup team as a last minute replacement for Saketh Myneni, who failed to be match fit for a tie, Vardhan can now smile at the seemingly unfortunate circumstance that landed him a Davis Cup nomination.
A last minute replacement
“We made the decision last night” the Indian team non-playing captain Anand Amritraj told Scroll. “Saketh had a soft tissue problem in his foot. He was supposed to have an injection there, one in the morning, one in the evening. But after the one in the morning we had a chat with him. He was not able to put pressure on it while serving.”
It has afforded Vardhan the opportunity to reprise the pairing which India fielded in the 2012 London Olympics. Then, Vardhan had been paired with Leander Paes after Rohan Bopanna and Mahesh Bhupati declined to partner the veteran. Paes and Vardhan had put on a respectable show in London, reaching the second round before losing to the French pair of Jo Wilfred Tsonga and Michael Llodra in three sets.
“Doubles comes more naturally to me”, said Vardhan, who ended 2016 ranked 342 in doubles and 429 in singles. “My singles game also has a lot of serve and volley.” Vardhan and Paes will face off against the Kiwi pair of Artem Sitak and Michael Venus. The two are ranked 56th and 36th in doubles respectively, and will pose a stiff challenge to the Indians.
‘Have Leander by my side’
“The New Zealand doubles pair are ranked higher, but in Davis Cup rankings don’t matter. Moreover, I’ll have Leander by my side. So I have no nerves to be honest”, said Vardhan.
Captain Amritraj, who is overseeing his final assignment with the Indian team, only came to know of Vardhan’s plans to be in Kazakhstan the morning of the draw, and called it a blessing in disguise. “If not him, we were going down the list of who to play in doubles.” When asked whether Bopanna was considered, he said that he was. “Rohan was the favourite based on ranking. He was called, but I wasn’t the one who called him.” Amritraj was tight lipped about what transpired in that conversation. “You will have to ask the All India Tennis Association about that”, he said.
Amritraj also touched upon how he would have liked to have the cushion of having a six player team, but schedules for professional tennis players mean that this can cost a player opportunities to gain rankings points and earnings on the tour. “A lot of people don’t want to sit around, when they can be on tour playing in tournaments.”
As for Vardhan, he received his phone call around half past nine at night, after just getting home from the gym. The first person to speak to him was Paes. “The first call that I got was from Leander. Coincidentally even when we played in London the first call that I got was from Leander”, he said. “He asked me how I’m feeling, how my body is, how is my tennis coming along. He asked if I was ready for the demands of this.”
There would have been little doubt in Vardhan’s mind as to his answer. He was scheduled to play on the tour around the same time, so was match fit. And it was an opportunity to play, not just for his country, but alongside a player who had been an inspiration growing up.
‘Playing for the country is special’
“I started playing in 1996, the same year as Leander won the bronze in the Olympics. So he is a big inspiration for me and it’s always an honour to play for the country.” When asked what he would have done if his visa had been granted and he would have been due to leave as per plan, Vardhan did not shy away from giving a response. Although his teammate Paes tried to laugh the hypothetical question off, Vardhan fronted up with his answer, his face all seriousness.
“There are lots of Futures and Challengers, but only four Grand Slams and one Davis Cup. I have always loved playing for my school, or my college or institution. So playing for the country is special.”
More than 4000 kilometre separate Hyderabad and Aktobe, and till a few days ago, Vardhan may have ruefully counted that distance in terms of ranking points missed and tickets wasted. Now he counts it in terms of an opportunity gained.
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