After a slightly chaotic turn of events threatened to unravel the hard-won normalcy within the Indian Davis Cup camp ahead of the Asia/Oceania Group I first round tie against New Zealand, it has had been a poised affair for the hosts.
Though the last-minute reshuffled team of Leander Paes and Vishnu Vardhan lost the doubles rubber to Artem Sitak and Michael Venus in four sets, the Indians still have a 2-1 edge over their opponents priming the reverse singles rubbers to be a fitting finale to the tie.
The inspired wins of Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan on Friday helped India get off to an ideal start in their 2017 Davis Cup outing. But, narrowing further to the event format’s basics, the youngsters’ successes distilled the Indian Davis Cup perspective that has had been majorly dominated by doubles, except on a few rare occasions.
Singles are the mainstay of Davis Cup ties
It is a peculiar contrast to the widely accepted – and obvious – norm of singles being the mainstay of Davis Cup ties. Four singles rubbers played on either side of the sole doubles rubber present substantial opportunities for the participating teams to try and win the tie by maximising on their singles results. The dwindled options in India’s singles cadre, however, has had them repeatedly salvage their ties through their doubles field instead of using it as a consolidation in the overall score-line.
Reeled in by the promise of Bhambri and Ramanathan’s repeat acts on Sunday evening, the next round seems to be beckoning quickly, putting India within reach of a place in the World Group Play-off for the fourth consecutive year. A tough opponent lies ahead in the form of Uzbekistan; a team against whom India have often tripped and fallen short. It also brings the focus back on the absence of high-ranked singles players, who could help the team get necessary results in clutch ties.
‘Forget about winning the Davis Cup’
“[The] fact of the matter is, 13 years apart, we only got to two finals in the Open Era. We have hardly done anything since [1974 and 1987],” remarked Anand Amritraj, the non-playing captain of the Indian team, abruptly shifting to the present and ending a brief reminisce about helping India reach the 1974 Davis Cup final by beating the Soviet Republic in the semi-final in Pune.
“It’s been 30 years since we got to the final and now we are trying to get into the World Group. That is our goal. Forget about winning the Davis Cup, we are just trying to get into the World Group so we can compete against the top teams,” he added. “We have a lot of catching up to do. We need players, who are in the top-100 of the singles. That’s what we need the most. We have lost a lot of ground to the Asian countries [and] that upsets me. So, it’s kind of upsetting when Vijay [Amritraj] and I see how we used to just dominate these guys and now, it’s touch and go. Any team we play, it is touch and go.”
And, so it’s likely to remain in the immediate future, with no Indian presence in the top-100 of the ATP singles rankings.
Saketh Myneni, the Indian No. 1 in singles sits just outside the top-200 of the ATP rankings, at the 199th place. However, bogged down as he has been with a foot injury that ousted him from the Davis Cup squad on the eve of the tie against New Zealand, not only do his prospects for the next few tournaments looked to be stalled, there’s also the likelihood of his rankings dropping down further.
A bare cupboard
Beyond Myneni, the painting of the Indian singles roster is far desolate. Ramanathan, the Indian No. 2 ranked outside the top-250, is at the 267th place, while the Indian No. 3, Sumit Nagal, ranked 358th in the ATP rankings, was unceremoniously cast aside and overlooked by the selection committee for the current tie with preference being given to Bhambri, the fourth ranked Indian in the 368th spot.
Bhambri’s on-court showings have, so far this year, bespoken his rankings. The prematurity of expectancy in wanting him to quickly build up his stride is, nonetheless, stymieing as he is still adjusting to the sport’s pace after having been forced to sit-out of mainstream action with injuries. The single-minded backing of Bhambri – though by no fault of his – also cuts an unappealing corner about the inner functioning of the Indian tennis community, extending from the administrative to the selection standpoints.
In their post-match press conference after their loss in the doubles rubber, while stressing on the facet of nuanced team selection for the Davis Cup, Leander Paes remarked, “What is the criteria for picking a team? If you are looking at the rankings, look what Yuki’s doing. Yuki is not the highest ranked singles player of our team, but he is the spearhead of our singles. This is the Indian team, the best people for the job should be put there. You should pick the team according to the surface, according to fitness and according to current form of players. You should take all three into consideration and not only the rankings.”
It would have served to be a personal opinion of the 43-year-old veteran, had the outgoing Indian skipper Amritraj not concurred with him thereby validating the concept of the Davis Cup squad selection on the basis of presumption of players’ performances in lieu of their rankings. In agreeing with Paes’ assessment, Amritraj then contradicted himself in his opining about the need to have bankable and competent singles players in the team.
Thrusting rankings into context when needed and then brushing them aside based on seeming whims is belittling for the continuity of the Indian Davis Cup campaign. And, until this inequality in perception is resolved on a long-term basis, the prognosis for India’s resurgence in the tournament will persist to remain bleak irrespective of any fortifying results coming the team’s way in the interim, starting right with the ongoing tie against New Zealand.