The Indians guarded themselves against the elements, keeping the chill away with bulky winter jackets and gloves. But they still couldn't weather the storm kicked up by the Chinese on Day One of the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania Group I tie on Friday.
Ramkumar Ramanathan, ranked 200 places above his 18-year-old opponent Yibing Wu, went down 6-7, 4-6 for a disastrous start, and Sumit Nagal came up with an equally bad performance to lose 4-6, 1-6 to Ze Zhang. Against all expectations, India now find themselves down 0-2 to China in gloomy Tianjin.
India's non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi was scathing in his verdict: "It was an uncharacteristically shameful display in both matches. There was no fight, hunger or will to win." Sitting in the captain's chair, Bhupathi looked well out of ideas by the time the fourth set of the day came around, which was over in just 15 minutes.
On paper, India started the favourites despite the absence of their top-ranked player, Yuki Bhambri, and the chilly conditions. Professional tennis players will time and again remind you that one of the game's primary demands is in adapting to new conditions every week, and a new opponent every day. But India fell woefully short on both fronts.
With Bhambri missing, it was time for Ramkumar, who reached a career-high of 132 this week, to step up and take the singles reins. But he couldn't cope with the big-hitting Wu, who has emerged as China's wild card through the week. The 18-year-old caught the attention last year by winning the boys' singles and doubles championships at US Open last year, but has shown that he is ready for the men's game. He won a $75,000 Challenger event in Shanghai in November 2017 and has won all three matches in the Davis Cup so far.
But he is very much a teenager enjoying the ride. Despite a lot riding on the opening match, Wu looked and played blissfully unaware of the pressure. The only signs of nerves he showed were when he was serving for the first set at 5-3 and was broken. Though Ramkumar managed to stretch the set to a tie-break, he couldn't quite push Wu over. The Chinese got a 2-0 head-start and never let the lead slip.
He wrested control of the match in the second set on winning a tight third game, which went to three deuces, on Ramkumar's serve. The Indian fired nine aces in the match, and it his serve was the only shot that kept pegging Wu back. But, in the end, lack-lustre hitting in cold and dreary Tianjin sealed his fate.
It was another example of how prickly and uncomfortable things can get away from home. There wasn't really a big crowd to get the hosts going, but China used every bit of home advantage they could: The weather and slow, low bouncing courts to secure the first two points. Though it was their fight that clinched the day.
Apart from Grand Slam winning Li Na, China's tennis exploits have remained limited to their skillful doubles pairs. But Wu and Zhang showcased a much-altered avatar of Chinese tennis on Friday. They are both big guys (Wu is already 6'0" and Zhang 6'2") with big serves and big games. And they are unafraid of unleashing those weapons.
In the second singles, there were a few phases in the first set when things got a little hairy for Zhang. He struggled with the ball-toss and Nagal was doing a good job of patrolling the baseline. But the Chinese always found the right shot and firepower to blast through any potential hurdle. Zhang brushed off a break of serve in the opening game to jump to a 4-1 lead. He served a double fault when at 30-15, 5-3 up to give Nagal a small opening and try and salvage the set.
Though Nagal did manage to break Zhang's shaky serve, he was blown off by Zhang's heavy hitting in the very next game. Rather than bouncing back, the Indian rolled over and let Zhang, ranked 247 to Nagal's 213, run away with the match. He lost six games in a row after losing the serve at 4-5 in the first set and won only three points off Zhang's serve in the second. As good as Zhang hit the ball on Friday, Nagal's ineptitude made him look better.
At 20, the Indian has a lot of growing up to do. But he hasn't made the best of the opportunities handed to him so far.
And this newly minted Davis Cup format won't give him or the team much time to dissect defeat and iron out errors. On Saturday, they will be back on court, fighting for survival. Since 2014, India has made the World Group play-off every single time, and have coasted past lower-ranked nations. If they are to continue the streak, India will have to find the fire, and fast.
Updated Date: Apr 06, 2018 22:18 PM