India and Uzbekistan battle this week in the second round of the Asia Oceania Group 1 encounter. The winner will take on either Kazakhstan or China in a play-off event scheduled for September. The tennis complex inside the KSLTA grounds will spring to life, at the heart of Bengaluru as the two sides look to put their best foot forward this weekend. India received an unexpected boost with the withdrawal of 71st ranked Denis Istomin. The numbers are stacked in India’s favour now, but it will still take a committed effort from the young Indian team to get past this hurdle.
Mahesh Bhupathi has opted to play Rohan Bopanna, leaving out the seasoned Leander Paes. The absence of Yuki Bhambri and Saketh Myneni, both out through injury, has opened the door for Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran to showcase their youthful promise.
India and Uzbekistan have split four ties between them so far. The last of those was on clay in Namangan, Uzbekistan where India returned home with a narrow 2-3 defeat to the hosts at the same stage.
Interestingly, the match up in Bengaluru will be the first contest on hard courts, with the previous four happening evenly on grass or indoor clay.
The first rubber will feature 267th ranked Ramanathan against 406th ranked Temur Ismailov, kicking the tie off on Friday. The two men haven’t played each other so far and playing at home should help Ramanathan run that table on their first ever meeting.
The player from Chennai has won six of eleven matches this season, mostly on the Challenger circuit. The 22-year-old from Tashkent, on the other hand, has been living off the Futures circuit, collecting five wins in nine matches.
The second rubber features Prajnesh against Sanjar Fayziev. The former is proving to be a late bloomer, and at 287 is just twenty spots behind Ramanathan in the rankings. This is a golden opportunity for Prajnesh to secure his space at the Indian Davis Cup table. Fayziev is ranked 376th in the world but is a spirited player with plenty of heart.
Fayziev is yet to win a singles rubber in Davis Cup, but it took five sets for Korean Hyeon Chung to get past the Uzbek player in the previous round. But Fayziev played his hand in the company of Istomin to earn a valuable doubles point, paving the way for a 3-1 win. Even that match was a five set classic in which the Uzbek pair lost a couple of tie-breaks before prevailing by winning the last two sets.
It is very likely that the first two rubbers are split evenly between the two teams, shifting the focus to the doubles rubber on Saturday. Victory in the third rubber could play a decisive role in the end result, making it vital for N Sriram Balaji and Bopanna to deliver the goods in their first match together.
Balaji has been in good form this season, playing well in both singles and doubles on the Futures circuit. The 306th ranked player has won a handful of ITF titles this season — two in singles and four in doubles with Vishnu Vardhan. He should be able to flourish in the company of Bopanna and take down the pairing of Farrukh Dustov and Fayziev.
That should set the stage for Ramanathan to clinch the winning point against Fayziev on Sunday, provided the 22-year-old remains fit enough to play a third match in three days. The summer heat is likely to test the resilience of the Uzbek players, but it is the crowd that is likely to make it harder for them to challenge the Indian team this week.
Another interesting facet of the tie will be the much-awaited debut of Mahesh Bhupathi in the role of a non-playing captain. There will be keen interest to observe the man in action and see what he might bring to the table as a leader.
The stage is set for a keenly contested tie between two teams which have been rendered even with the absence of Istomin. India has an edge thanks to the strong doubles combination of Bopanna and Balaji. The duo will also be the fresher for not having engaged in singles combat, unlike Fayziev who will have played the second rubber on Friday.
India should be able to pull through this one even if it takes some tough grinding through the next three days. Play will start at 03:00PM on Friday and Sunday, with the doubles rubber set for a 06:00PM start.
Updated Date: Apr 07, 2017 14:06 PM