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Davis Cup: Mahesh Bhupathi's selection of big-serving players pays off as India make playoffs

There were a number of mishits that went into the crowd at the KSLTA complex on Saturday, most of them were from the rackets of the Uzbek players, on the receiving end of India’s doubles pair. There was even a shank that went out of the stadium, evoking thoughts of Chris Gayle’s top edges and Chinnaswamy Stadium’s short boundaries; after all, the Royal Challengers Bangalore were playing an IPL match next door. But as India wrapped up a 3-0 win against Uzbekistan, what stood out the most at about a Davis Cup tie in the heart of Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park, was the ferocity of the serving.

It was Ramkumar Ramanathan who made the first mark on the court on Friday, in the singles. Ramkumar had multiple opportunities to make short work of Temur Ismailov, but small errors in the second set dragged it out to four. His serving was similarly error prone, but equally effective. He only made a little more than half of his first serves, but when he did, converted 78 percent of the points on it. He made 14 double faults, but served 16 aces.

Indian team celebrates after winning the doubles match to clinch the Davis cup against Uzbekistan. PTI

Indian team celebrates after winning the doubles match to clinch the Davis cup against Uzbekistan. PTI

But he consistently served over 200 kmph.

Prajnesh Gunneswaran, handed a debut thanks to an injury to Yuki Bhambri, did not find the going as easy in his rubber. He benefitted from a heart condition that his opponent Sanjar Fayziev suffered to clinch his first win. But he too was sending down the tennis ball at over 200 kmph.

Friday’s games were but an encore for the doubles, which surely can claim to have stolen the show, and for the right reasons for once. Rohan Bopanna, returning to the Indian team after missing two ties, in the company of another debutant Sriram Balaji, totally outclassed their opponents, Faruk Dustov and Fayziev. Again, it was the serving that stood out. Bopanna, at 37, is known for his big serves, and the while he started nervously, he didn’t disappoint. Balaji was the surprise package; both a singles and a doubles player, he used the fast serves and kick serves to good effect. The pair peeled off 16 aces, to their opponent’s one.

In this flurry of pacy serves though, the highlight was a sublime kick serve on the second serve from Balaji’s wrist. In the first set, Balaji was serving from the right service court to Dustov, and when the ball landed near the T, the right handed Dustov expected it to continue to swerve deeper towards the deuce court and set himself up for the backhand. Instead, the ball straightened off the surface, and Dustov’s swing missed it entirely. An ace on the second serve. That’s something you don’t see every day.

The higher altitude of Bengaluru, cooler night time conditions, and a fast court accentuated the skill of the Indians. When Bopanna and Balaji were serving, the ball was often beating the Uzbek rackets altogether or nicking the frames and flying into the crowd behind the receivers. It looked less like a tennis match and more like an exhibition of swing bowling on a greentop, with spectators doubling up as slip fielders.

“Bangalore has altitude and all of us have been serving really big (sic),” Balaji said after the game. “We executed really well with the conditions in Bangalore, the courts are fast, the altitude, the balls are bouncing really high, we made sure to take advantage of that.” The pair were equally impressive when their opponents were serving, claiming five break points while not conceding even one off their own serve.

This sudden collusion of powerful shoulders is no coincidence; it seemed Bhupathi had this strategy in mind as early as February, when it was decided that Bengaluru would host this tie. “I’ve been saying it for a while now, the reason we requested this venue was because we knew conditions are going to be very quick,” Bhupathi said after the game.

With more and more singles players also playing doubles, big serves are as much a part of the game as more baseline play, and it is no secret that the serve is the shortest of Leander Paes’ arrows.

Their history apart, it was both logical and gutsy from Bhupathi to drop the veteran and field two debutants. But had there been an upset in the doubles, there might have been much acrimony in the press, something that a small group of Paes supporters in the crowd waving ‘We Want Leander’ banners attested to. But at the end, Bhupathi got to say, “We went with four big servers, and they didn’t disappoint us.”

Of course there was a gulf between the Indians and their opponents, especially when their highest-ranked player Denis Istomin (ranked 71 in singles and 137 in doubles) pulled out of the tie due to injury. Istomin made headlines when he ousted Novak Djokovic from the Australian Open early this year, and had featured in both singles and doubles wins in Uzbekistan’s last tie. Without him, even India’s debutant, Balaji (ranked 223 in doubles), outranked Uzbekistan’s highest-ranked player Fayziev (ranked 437 in doubles). So India didn't face the most challenging opponents as they made the World Group Playoffs for the fifth consecutive time. But Bhupathi stressed that having players who can serve big in the team will be vital for the upcoming games.

“In the future as well, we have got a good variation of big servers and good returners, so we can play on literally any surface," he said. With Yuki Bhambri and Saketh Myneni also in the picture, India now have clutch of players with strong serves they can choose from, in both singles and doubles.

“We can give anyone a run for their money," Bhupathi added, looking ahead to the World Group Playoffs. “Obviously, we need to be a bit more favourable with the draw."

The parallels between tennis and cricket are unavoidable (especially when a cricket player is writing on tennis). Virat Kohli’s Test team have just completed the perfect home season, winning every series. The standout from those Tests, has been the emergence of the fast bowlers. Kohli now has Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Bhuvaneshwar Kumar at his disposal, giving him both variety and depth. It has made even those most cynical of India’s away chances more optimistic.

For Mahesh Bhupathi, this collection of big-serving players offers him the same. India has played their last five ties at home, only losing twice in the Playoffs to the formidable Spain and Czech Republic. For upcoming away ties, and the crucial Playoff, having a quartet of big servers seems central to his plans.

“With guys serving as big as this, anything is possible," he concluded.

Snehal Pradhan is a former international cricketer and now a freelance journalist and YouTuber. She tweets @SnehalPradhan

Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 11:50 AM

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