At Canada’s Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, India put up a fittingly gladiatorial fight.
Even as Ramkumar Ramanathan overcame a stuttering start to defeat debutant Brayden Schnur 5-7, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 7-5, Yuki Bhambri made life imminently uncomfortable for teen sensation Denis Shapovalov before the Canadian helped the hosts to level the tie 1-1 on Day 1 of the Davis Cup World Group Play-off. Bhambri had fought back from a match point down in the third set tie-break to push the match into a deciding set, but eventually went down 6-7(2), 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4, 6-1 in three hours and 52 minutes.
India, contesting in the play-offs for the fourth year on the trot, had been overwhelmed by their big-name opponents on the previous occasions. The Indians did not seem to have the singles firepower to take on the likes of Serbia (2014, even without Novak Djokovic), Czech Republic (2015) and Spain last September.
However, with Canada’s top player Milos Raonic ruled out due to a wrist injury and their steady No 2 for the past few years Vasek Pospisil kept out of Day 1 action with a back niggle, a window of opportunity opened for India. They got the ideal draw, opening the tie with the country’s No 1 player, Ramkumar, taking on 22-year-old rookie Schnur.
It wasn’t just Schnur’s first Davis Cup outing, but his first five-set contest. If Schnur had any pre-match nerves, he hid them well under a veneer of confidence. With both the players finding aces and serving at a high percentage, it was a close contest to 5-5. Schnur got the first break, in the 11th game to go up 6-5 and served the set out with two aces in the game. In fact the debutant was doing so well on his racquet that he did not face a single break point in the first two sets.
Ramkumar was doing enough to survive in the second set. He saved five break points, including two in the opening game, to force the issue to the tie-breaker and overturned a 0-2 deficit there to take the breaker at 7-4 when a Schnur forehand return sailed long.
The hard-fought battle came to a head in the 10th game of the third set. Serving at 4-5, Ramkumar found himself in a 15-40 hole. He rallied valiantly, saving six break points in the game that went to deuce four times. Buoyed by the escape, Ramkumar went on to break Schnur for the very first time in the match, and take the set 7-5.
The mental and physical fatigue was starting to tell on Schnur. His serve lacked the sharpness, and his groundstrokes the direction. The Canadian had done well in the first two sets to target Ramkumar’s backhand, which remains a weak-link.
The Indian, on the other hand, seems to thrive under pressure on the big stage. A natural athlete, the lanky Ramkumar is the fittest Indian player on tour and showed no signs of flagging even as the match crept past the three-hour mark. The players traded a couple of breaks to take the fourth set to 5-5, but Ramkumar’s experience gave him the slight edge to force the issue. His fifth win on the trot in Davis Cup, powered by 18 aces, gave the visitors’ a 1-0 lead.
“To play a Davis Cup is something special. I fought hard for every point. It could have gone either way, especially in that third set,” Ramkumar, 22, later said. “I kept going. That paid off.”
Up next was Shapovalov: the 18-year-old who has caught the imagination of the tennis world in the past couple of months. In Raonic’s absence, it was left to Shapovalov to take on the reigns and lead his team to the 16-team World Group. And the teenager seemed to wear the responsibility lightly, bringing on his top game to cruise through the first two sets. Even though he couldn’t quite break Bhambri in the opening set, he consistently pushed him on his serve.
But it was towards the end of the third set that the match truly came alive. Bhambri didn’t quite have answers to Shapovalov’s explosive game, but he had never stepped down from the contest. The Indian ran tirelessly, putting back in as many balls as possible. Among Indians, his point-construction is second to none. His intuitive shot-making and well-directed serves had made sure that the in-form Shapovalov did not blow him off the court.
By the end of the third set, the strain of the contest started showing on the Canadian. He has taken giant strides in the past few days: beating Rafael Nadal at home at the Montreal Masters and making it all the way to the US Open fourth round after entering the Grand Slam as a qualifier. But Shapovalov is still 18; his young game all fabulous and flashy. He is prone to lapses, and Bhambri had done well to push him to that point of discomfort.
Shapovalov had broken Bhambri in the opening game of the third set, and then again in the seventh, only for the Indian to break back immediately. The impatience in Shapovalov’s game was starting to grow, the errors, especially on the forehand, starting to stack. He held a match-point at 6-5 in the third set tie-break but saw it vanish with a poor return of serve.
Bhambri took the set 8-6 in the tie-breaker at kept chipping at his rival’s tetchiness. There is something of Nadal in Shapovalov’s heavy, looping forehands, but it is not quite tempered with experience. The Canadian dumped two easy put-away forehand volleys into the net to hand Bhambri the break for 2-1 in the fourth set. The Indian ran away with the advantage. The home crowd was stunned into silence; India’s world No 157 had just levelled the match against the local star and world No 51.
That’s when Bhambri decided to take a bathroom break. These breaks between sets are seen in the tennis community as more of a strategy, with players using them at crucial times to derail their opponents’ momentum. But it was Bhambri who had the mental edge at this point, and the eight-minute break seemed to have given Shapovalov enough time to slow down and regroup.
He came out and won a game at love. At 30-0 in the third game, he used the one-two knockout that had bothered Bhambri the whole evening. A high hooked forehand drew the Indian far to his backhand side, and Shapovalov smacked the backhand flat, cross-court for a winner to announce his return. In the next game, he hit an inside-out forehand into the corner that Bhambri could only get a racquet to, to effect the break.
Shapovalov played the cleanest set of the match: two aces, no double faults, seven winners and four errors (to 10 by Bhambri). He won two out of two break points to bring the hammer down on the contest.
But the opening day had gone much better than the visitors would have expected. They at least managed to rattle the Candians with their fight, if not dislodge them.
Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 12:41 PM