Leander Paes is riding a roller-coaster this week, but it is Mahesh Bhupathi who is in the driver's seat. After enjoying the high of a much-awaited title run in Mexico, the ageing legend has been brought crashing down in Bengaluru by the Indian Davis Cup captain. Bhupathi, sticking by his three plus one formula, opted to have Rohan Bopanna in the team, playing as the sole doubles specialist. Bopanna will most likely join N Sriram Balaji for the doubles encounter on Saturday. Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ramkumar Ramanathan are the other two members of the team playing Uzbekistan this week.
The disappointment of being left out of the squad will take some absorbing for Leander. The 43-year-old doubles specialist has been the mainstay of the Davis Cup set-up for several years. But he has been enduring a lengthy drought over the past two years. Leander has dropped out of the top 50 in the doubles ranking hasn’t won on the ATP World Tour since Auckland in January 2015.
This is the first time since his debut against Japan in 1990 that Leander has been axed from the team owing to poor form. Leander reached Bengaluru on Tuesday night, fully hoping for a spot on the team for the second round of the Asia/Oceania zone group 1 tie.
But all good things have to come to an end. Leander faces a stern test of temperament as he deals with the disappointment of being dropped from the Davis Cup squad. On the cusp of a treasured record, Leander is clearly hoping to play again to try and overhaul the doubles record of Nicola Pietrangeli. The Indian is currently tied on 42 career victories with the great Italian Davis Cupper.
Sentiment aside, it is difficult to argue with the choice made by Bhupathi. Bopanna has been in Bengaluru practicing with Balaji, clearly preparing for the weekend. Both men serve big and play attacking tennis – ideal for the conditions in Bengaluru. At an elevation of 920m above sea level, the ball does bounce and race, favouring the playing style of Bopanna and Balaji.
Leander was clearly miffed at the treatment meted to him. Despite his efforts to try and hold it back, his comments after learning of the captain’s decision gave away his disappointment. “A simple phone call would have sufficed to tell me that I was not playing. A captain can have his style, but criteria for selection should be transparent,” said Leander. “If it was form, I just won an event. That said, team is more important than me. Country is even bigger. My full support to the team.”
To be fair to Bhupathi, form has been an issue with Leander as he deals with the new normal. He is well into his forties and winning is proving a hard task. Despite his ability to produce some smart placement off his serve and clearly undiminished skills at the net, the doubles game is moving ahead with Leander clearly struggling to play catch up.
Bopanna is stacking up better at the moment. The man from Coorg is ranked 24th to Leander’s 53rd with a favourable 9-7 win loss record this season. In contrast, Leander, six years senior to Bopanna, has lost seven and won just five matches this season.
Victory in Mexico came at an opportune time for Leander. As he made the long haul journey from Mexico immediately after winning the Leon Challenger, he flew into Bengaluru hoping that the victory will give him a slight edge.
Bhupathi, it seems, had a different plan. One that does not have space for Leander. The 18-time Grand Slam champion did practice on Wednesday with Balaji against Bopanna and Ramkumar. But there wasn’t enough to convince Bhupathi to change his mind.
It is also important to remember that there is no love lost between the protagonists in this prolonged Davis Cup drama. Mahesh, Bopanna and several other younger colleagues have all drifted away from the passionate old man. There aren’t many that see eye to eye with the legendary champion, India’s only Olympic medallist in tennis.
As keen as he is to try and find another opportunity to score an elusive 43rd doubles victory, time is running out for Leander. The well-documented animosity between Mahesh and him means that it will be increasingly difficult for Leander to force his way back into the team.
The absence of Denis Istomin has given this tie an unexpected balance. India now has a great opportunity to win this tie and look ahead to September for further progress towards the World Group.
Leander will need to play well between now and then, including at the French Open and Wimbledon. And that does not include Mixed Doubles, where he is doing reasonably well with Martina Hingis. He will need to find a suitable partner who can help him do well in the Grand Slams and improve his ranking.
Getting his ranking above Bopanna is perhaps the only option left now for Leander to try and stake a claim for a spot on the team. The man from Kolkata will be 44 this June, so he has a literal mountain to climb in his quest for a 43rd career victory.
Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017 15:51 PM