After Day 1 of the Davis Cup tie against India finished 1-1, and looking ahead to the doubles match, Canada captain Martin Laurendeau said, “This is why we didn’t play Vasek (Pospisil), he will come off fresh on Saturday.”
And the hosts’ decision to put their money on Pospisil in doubles paid off as the 6’4 Canadian made all the difference in Saturday’s contest. He teamed up with doubles veteran Daniel Nestor to beat Indian pair of Rohan Bopanna and Purav Raja 7-5, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 in two hours and 52 minutes to take his team to a 2-1 lead in the World Group play-off tie.
On paper, Pospisil is Canada’s No 2 singles player, but he was kept out of opening day action also because he is nursing a back injury. Even though Pospisil is once again focusing on singles on tour, he has been ranked as high as No 4 in the world in doubles and won the Wimbledon doubles championship along with Jack Sock in 2014. Canada, already without their ace Milos Raonic, needed the cool head and athleticism of Pospisil to aid the slowing Nestor, who at 45 is the oldest man on tour, for the pivotal doubles day.
India, meanwhile, decided to dump their pre-tie talk of fielding three singles and sole doubles player by adding Purav Raja to the team at the last minute. The team had carried two players with suspect fitness — Saketh Myneni who is coming off a long injury lay-off and an injured N Sriram Balaji — for the week-long camp in New York. With both of them deemed unfit to compete in a five-setter, captain Mahesh Bhupathi put Raja’s name into the hat on the eve of the tie. The 43-year-old Leander Paes, India’s most successful Davis Cup player, was not once considered for the Play-off tie.
On Saturday, the Bopanna-Raja duo just seemed to lack the intent.
The 31-year-old Raja has made remarkable progress on the ATP doubles circuit in the last two years in the company of fellow Indian Divij Sharan. They have graduated from playing in ATP Challengers to regulars on the Grand Slam and tour circuit. Raja is currently ranked 56 in the world and showed exactly why he has been able to do so well in the team game. He has great dexterity and intuition at the net. Against Nestor-Pospisil, he showcased that skill-set, standing at the top of the net and swatting away volleys. He also returned well, especially on Nestor’s serve.
But Raja was playing only his second Davis Cup match, and was thrown at the deep end against two experienced campaigners from Canada. His serve, which was broken five times in the match, gave Canada ample opportunity to lead in the otherwise close contest. At set point down, Raja served a double fault to hand Canada the first set 7-5.
Raja’s habit of standing unusually close to the net provided the flash point of the match. Bopanna was serving at break point down in the first game of the second set, when an enthusiastic Raja stood up and dunked a volley winner. The chair umpire though deemed that Raja had hit the ball before it crossed onto the Indian side, handing Canada the point and the break. It roused Bhupathi from the captain’s chair and he argued fervently. Eventually the tournament referee had to come on court and put the fire out.
It led to a nervy sequence of events, as all the first four games were breaks of serve. The passage of play kind of told the story of the match in a nutshell: it was a close, entertaining encounter littered with too many errors.
On the Canadian side, while Pospisil was serving steady and doing most of the running around, Nestor kept blowing hot and cold, especially on his serve. The 45-year-old, a former world No 1 and multiple Slam champion, is understandably not as sharp. He had lost the last five matches he’d competed in and slipped to 43 in the rankings. And Nestor was put under pressure constantly by the Indians. He was docked two serves on two separate occasions for time violation and struggled to find the rhythm on his delivery. He was broken thrice in the match, most crucially in the 11th game of the third set.
The Canadian’s old hands, however, remembered enough touch to carry the team through on big points. In the second set, with Raja serving to stay in the set at 5-6, Nestor struck a return to the Indian’s feet and Raja could only plonk a reply into the net. At the beginning of the fourth set, Nestor drilled a backhand return winner, once again, against Raja to give his team a 3-1 lead.
India did survive a match point in the third set, but brought little fight in the ensuing fourth.
Being the least experienced Cup player of the four on court, Raja was always going to be swamped. The Indian was still holding his own during net exchanges, but for most of the match Bopanna remained a non-factor. The 37-year-old, who this year became a Grand Slam champion, was at 19, the highest ranked player on court. But he rarely pulled his weight. It’s not that Bopanna was doing much wrong, he just wasn’t doing much. Neither his leadership nor his ground-game inspired some much-needed energy into the team. He was solid on serve and gunned down aces (10 in total for the team), but never really took the game to the Canadians.
The Indians managed to convert only four of the 12 break point opportunities that cam their way in the match. The Canadians were only a tad better at six out of 14, but in the end that was enough to help them win.
The early break in the fourth set put the hosts firmly back on track and they played an almost flawless game thereon. The fact that Pospisil is in the singles top-100 puts him in a different league and it showed in his game: his served at around the 200kph mark, made some athletic gets and was quick and assured on the volley.
Fittingly, it was the tall Canadian who set up match point with ace, ace, service winner. A nervous rally on match point came to an end when Bopanna looped the ball out of play.
That India lost the crucial doubles rubber is one thing, whether they put their best team forward, quite another.
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Updated Date: Sep 17, 2017 11:40:54 IST