Of late, the Indian tennis team has been out of the elite bracket (the World Group) of Davis Cup. In Zagreb over the weekend, they showed us why breaking into the World Group has become increasingly difficult for the Indians with every passing season, and why Indian tennis in general is stuck as far as evolution and development is concerned.
India lost their Davis Cup World Group qualifier tie against Croatia 1-3 on Saturday (March 7). The result was expected considering the fact that Croatia, former champions, boast higher ranked players, one that includes a former Grand Slam champion. But the script was not as straightforward as that. Injury-induced pullouts meant India had a fighting chance in the tie. But, applying the weirdest of tennis logic ever, India decided not to field their highest ranked player, Sumit Nagal, in the opening singles matches of the tie.
The Croatians might have equally been surprised by the strategic faux pas. On court, though, they hardly showed it and went about their business clinically.
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After Day 1 on March 6, India trailed 0-2. Prajnesh Gunneswaran got a set off the lower-ranked Borna Gojo (replacement for the injured World No. 33 Borna Coric) and lost 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. It was the World No. 277 Gojos’ first ever victory in the Davis Cup. In the second match, Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion, won in straight sets 7-6 (8), 7-6 (8) over Ramkumar Ramanathan, who replaced Nagal in the mix. To his credit, Ramanathan, with his limited abilities, did challenge Cilic through the match. At one point, the Indian had a set point too. However, the Croatian had too much quality and experience to close the match and ensure the hosts went into Day 2 practically with the tie in their pockets.
India did reel things back in the doubles rubber, as expected. Seasoned campaigners Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna beat Mate Pavic and Franko Skugor 6-3, 6-7(9), 7-5 to take the tie into the reverse singles. Indians were also helped a wee bit by the fact that Croatia were missing the services of their No.1 doubles player, Ivan Dodig.
But for India, that’s where the good news ended. In the first reverse singles match, Cilic ran through Nagal in straight sets. The India No. 1 was brought back for the roster, to take on a former Grand Slam champion. A rather late and misguided brainwave from the think-tank, perhaps.
The worrying point however isn’t in the loss, it is in not acknowledging the mistakes made that caused it. India's non-playing skipper Rohit Rajpal, instead, blamed luck for the loss.
"We played a hard match. On the first day, luck was not on our side. We took the pressure to the Croatian team. We should have won the first rubber. In the second match against Cilic, Ramkumar had set points in both the sets. We needed some luck. I was very confident Leander and Rohan would give me that point. That came true," said Rajpal.
With an approach reliant on luck -- and Leander -- it didn't come as a surprise when it came to light that Rajpal is planning to retain Paes for the next Davis Cup play-off ties in September. Paes, 46, is in his last season of competitive tennis, and had insisted that Zagreb was going to be his final Davis Cup outing.
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"This was going to be my last match but the captain (Rohit Rajpal) said something to me after the match," said Paes. "I will leave it to the captain because whoever plays, the best thing needs to be done and the best decision needs to be made."
Paes registered his 45th Davis Cup doubles victory in Zagreb, which is also a third in a row following the wins against China and Pakistan, partnering Bopanna and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan respectively. Bopanna, despite his earlier differences and spats with Paes, was in awe of what he brings on court.
"It was a very high-quality match. The best we have played in a long time, after the one against Serbia in 2014. We have learned a lot from him [Paes]. We may have had our ups and downs, but when we step on the court, we try to give our best," said Bopanna.
However, it is clear that Paes has crossed what could politely be termed the twilight of his career. Despite maintaining fitness, he is not exactly a force against top doubles players of this generation. On the world stage, and at the Slams, his age has been showing.
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Indian tennis, though, seems reluctant to look beyond Peas. They seem stuck in the nostalgia of someone's glory. The fact that Paes still manages to edge out youngsters, says a lot about the development of the younger generation in the country. Then again, the question must be asked. How will a youngster develop if he is constantly kept on the sidelines while the team facilitates ageing warhorses and their testimonials and record-hunting outings?
The loss against Croatia, beyond the result, brings out this worrying fact. The future of Indian tennis seems compromised, and the think-tank looks set to keep blaming luck for all the failures.
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