Two beautiful stories unfolded as India marched into the World Group Playoffs for the fifth year in a row on Saturday. Once again, the 41-year-old Leander Paes showed age is just a number and Indian team is still incomplete without him. There was nostalgia after Rohana Bopanna and Paes won their doubles rubber against China in Davis Cup Asia Oceania Group I second round, as Paes became the player with the most Davis Cup doubles win, two new roots of trust had grown in the Indian team’s locker room.
One obviously was Paes.
The other was Prajnesh Gunneswaran, the 28-year-old player from Chennai, who impressed his captain and coach when he approached them asking if he could play one of the reverse singles rubbers. India needed to beat China to qualify for the World Group Playoffs but by the end of the first day, neither the weather nor the mood of their captain favored the Indian players. The morale in the team was already down after India lost both the matches and were 0-2 down.
On one side, the Chinese Captain Wie Jiang was all smiles and animated as he looked after his players, helping them deal with the five degree Celsius temperature along with a few words of appreciation for taking China 2-0 up in the five-rubber second round. On the other side was a furious Indian Skipper Mahesh Bhupathi, whose clear face expressions showed that there was no mercy for Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagal, who had just put up a terrible performance in their respective singles tie.
“After we saw what happened on Friday, Mahesh and I decided that Sumit’s game lacked intensity and if we were to have a fifth rubber on Saturday we would play Prajnesh. But the fact that he came up to us and asked if we would give him a shot spoke about his character,” an impressed coach, Zeeshan Ali, said.
Not always everything goes according to the plan. If you go by history, the Indian team was supposed to go past China with an ease in their Davis Cup Asia Oceania Group I second round. They led China 3-0 in the head to head in Davis Cup and almost all the players from China ranked below their Indian opponents.
In absence of 105-ranked Yuki Bhambri, it was important for Ramkumar Ramanathan to win his match, in order to reduce pressure from a young Sumit Nagal, whose only prior Davis Cup experience was a dead rubber loss to Spain’s Marc Lopez in 2016. Unfortunately, he failed to deliver on the first day. Ramkumar was up against China’s rising star, Yibing Wu; the US Open Junior singles and doubles champion, who was very talented, but inexperienced, was ranked some 200 places behind the Indian.
However, the Chinese youngster proved to be too strong for Ramkumar. Wu matched Ramkumar’s every shot and sealed the first set in tie-breaker. He then snatched the momentum away when he broke Ramkumar in the third game of the second set to seal the match in straight sets. Courtesy of Davis Cup committee of experimenting rules, the Zonal matches were not decided in best of three sets and that hurt the Indian side on the first day.
Just because it was Nagal’s first time in a crucial Davis Cup tie did not mean he should be spared for his performance on the opening day. He has the 2015 Junior Wimbledon Championship doubles trophy to his name; he recently clinched his maiden ATP Challengers Trophy before he went past the ATP qualifying of the Tata Maharashtra Open to make his debut in ATP’s main draw in January. His defensive skills in the first set kept him in the game until he went 4-5 down. From there on, things just fell apart for the 20-year-old. After conceding the first set, he trailed 0-5 and before he knew, the match was done and dusted.
On the second and final day of India and China’s Davis Cup’s second round tie, the men and blue were well aware that every match they had to play that day was make or break. The first match was the doubles rubber between India’s Bopanna and Paes against China’s Gong Maoxin and Zhang Ze. The Indian duo lost the first set 5-7 and suddenly their forgettable history was remembered where Bopanna once had expressed he did not want to partner Paes in the doubles event. However, ahead of the tie against China, All India Tennis Association (AITA), finally took a firm stand: “Any issues between the players have to be settled in a nice manner, in the interest of the nation, between themselves,” AITA sent out a statement.
However, they paved their way back to win the doubles with a nervy 5-7, 7-6, 7-6 comeback. Paes, who made his Davis Cup debut in 1990 alongside Zeeshan Ali, who is India’s coach now. His game bettered playing with Bhupathi in the 1990s and today, with 43 wins, Paes has the most number of Davis Cup doubles wins to decorated account. This showed India still is dependant on the 41-year-old Paes, which speaks volumes about Paes’ legacy. Everything fell in place for India after that, as Ramkumar followed that up with a 7-6, 6-3 win over Di Wu.
Zeeshan Ali and Bhupathi’s call to play 28-year-old Prajnesh Gunneswaran in the crucial decider rubber paid off and how. Gunneswaran’s cool, calculated strokes and play were certainly enough to derail the Chinese wonder-kid Wu Yibing in straight sets. Wu Yibing is still a raw player; it’s visible that he gets impatient with his shots, sometimes that could go against him and that’s exactly what the Chennai player did. He played some superb counter-punching tennis until the Chinese had no answers more.
Gunneswaran broke his opponents four times in the match to zoom to victory in just 65 minutes. As yet another forehand of Yibing Wu went wide, Gunneswaran pumped his fist in the air and even before he could begin his celebrations, the Indian team was literally on him.
The last time the Indian Davis Cup team played in the World Group was back in 2011, where they lost to Serbia and it is the same country India is going to face in their next challenge in the ongoing Davis Cup. They have five months before their World Group PlayOff tie against Serbia which is enough for them to work on their strengths and weaknesses. The Indian team certainly have learned several lessons from his tie against China.They have plenty of work to do with Nagal, Ramkumar has to stick to his basics more often and not give away chances like he did against Wu Yibing and India have found a gem in Gunneswaran and they have to capitalize on that.