Underdogs India, with a tactic that defied logic and tennis sense, failed to take advantage of the injury-induced weak link in the Croatian team during the opening two singles matches of the Davis Cup World Group Qualifier tie in Zagreb on March 6. India trail Croatia 0-2 after Day 1 of the two-day tie. Prajnesh Gunneswaran went down 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 to Borna Gojo in the opening match -- an upset going by their individual rankings. In the second match, Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion, won a straight set, but hard-fought 7-6(8), 7-6(8) win over Ramkumar Ramanathan to allow the hosts a big advantage going into the doubles match and the reverse singles matches (if required).
It was always a tough task for India to make a fight out of the tie against Croatia, two-time champions, in their den. The Indians, however, got a narrow opening to exploit when it came to light that Croatia will be without the services of their top-ranked player -- World No. 33 Borna Coric. The hosts, instead, would field Borna Gojo, ranked 277 in the world, and more importantly, a player who has never won a Davis Cup match.
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How did the Indian thinktank react? By springing their own surprise — omitting their top-ranked player from the tie altogether. It was a faux pas they would come to regret. The team decided to bench Sumit Nagal (World No. 127) and instead field Prajnesh Gunneswaran (132) and Ramanathan (182), against a side that boasts of a former Grand Slam winner.
Of course, India had its own twisted logic behind the decision.
“Over last week, both coach Zeeshan Ali and I saw the players and also what was happening with the new court,” said Rohit Rajpal, India's non-playing captain. “We felt that as a strategy, this would work out better for us because the court seems to have a low bounce and the ball keeps moving. With the strength of our team, we felt this was the best combination to go with.”
Now, with their backs to their walls after the two losses, India will hope their doubles pair will keep the tie alive on March 7. In the past three decades or so, India's success in the Davis Cup has hinged around the fact that a victory in doubles was almost a given, and the focus was to steal singles matches against the lower ranked player in the opposition.
However, one is also left to wonder whether India will manage to do well in this tie as well. India have decided to field veteran Leander Paes, in his last season as a player, and Rohan Bopanna, to take on the Croatian pair of Franko Skugor and Mate Pavie. Croatia, again, has fielded a second-choice doubles pair after their top double players -- Ivan Dodig -- pulled out due to a hand injury.
Going by ranking, the Crotian players are much above the seasoned Indians. But in the doubles game, experience matter too, and the wily pair of Paes and Bopanna, if they bring out the rare synergy in their game, could pull it off and keep India alive for the reverse singles. However, India again seem to have shot on their foot.
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Perhaps with the intent of giving Paes a testimonial match and a chance to extend his record as the most successful doubles player in Davis Cup history, the veteran was chosen over Divij Sharan, who is India´s No.2 ranked doubles player behind Bopanna at the moment. While one understands the romance and nobility of granting a great of the game a testimonial match, it is difficult to find justification for the risk when it is done in a tie which looked winnable thanks to injuries to the opposition.
“We are going more experienced this time. We always have a chance to change, but I’d prefer to go with experience at this point.” said skipper Rajpal “We certainly have a chance in this tie. If we get one single in the bag on Friday, anything can happen. But it is difficult to swing back if we lose 0-2 on the first day.
The last competition between the two-sides took place in 1995 (New Delhi) and India won on that occasion 3-2. A reversal of that result looks on cards, perhaps a whitewash too, and the Indians will have only themselves and their questionable team selection to blame if that happens.
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