Davis Cup: Tame show against weakened Serbia provides measure of the task facing Indian tennis
India's tennis has 99 problems, and doubles has become one.
Indian tennis has 99 problems, and doubles has become one.
In recent times, even when the Indian Davis Cup team travelled far and wide, doubles was the one solace, their one shot at glory and a potential launchpad for a miraculous turnaround. Indian legends Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes own the Davis Cup doubles record of 24 doubles wins in a row. All of India’s Grand Slam wins, 32 of them, have come in some form of doubles. India currently has five players in the top 100 in the men’s ranking. Only earlier this year, the team had overturned a 0-2 deficit against China to script a remarkable 3-2 comeback victory.
On Saturday, 12-time Grand Slam champion Bhupathi, the non-playing captain, sat courtside, as India’s last standing bastion came crumbling down. Rohan Bopanna and last-minute replacement Saketh Myneni went down 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (4) to the scratch Serbian pair of Nikola Milojevic and Danilo Petrovic. Since India had already lost the two singles rubbers on the opening day (Friday), the doubles defeat effectively ended their challenge against Serbia during the World Group playoff tie in Kraljevo, Serbia.
Pedja Krstin defeated N Sriram Balaji, originally recruited in the team as the second doubles player, 6-3, 6-1, giving the hosts a 4-0 win in the tie. The fifth rubber was not played.
It was the fifth time in a row that India have failed to clear the World Group playoff hurdle. Doubles, we were told time and again, was the one guaranteed point in tough Davis Cup ties. With their fourth successive doubles defeat in World Group playoff ties, they have lost the badge of honour.
What was disappointing was not just that they lost the doubles tie, but the manner in which they did. They had an experienced team in Bopanna, ranked 30 in the world, and the 30-year-old Myneni.
The latter was drafted into the team last minute, in place of Balaji, who had been nominated for doubles during the draw. While Myneni has the distinction of qualifying for the US Open in 2016, he has been plagued with injury in recent times and has played only eight tournaments this year. His most recent tour event was the Lexington Challenger in July.
It is understood that the team management was impressed by Myneni’s form during the week-long camp in Serbia.
“The court was slower than first few days and soft since they watered it a lot so we wanted Saketh to play to support the match up,” explained Bhupathi.
But the gamble back-fired as neither Bopanna nor Myneni, ranked 222, had the legs to survive the Serbian onslaught. Both of them have a big serve and big groundstrokes, but they lacked the athleticism for slow, high-bouncing clay and faced 15 break points in the match. They were playing together in a Davis Cup tie only for the fourth time and didn’t really work as a team.
But that didn’t seem to be a problem for Serbian youngsters Petrovic (doubles rank 228) and Milojevic (345), who had a combined Davis Cup experience of one match before Saturday. Standing at 6’8, debutant Petrovic unleashed his monster serves, winning 23 points on the trot on his serve in the first two sets. His partner, Milojevic was quick and clinical at the net.
The Indian players, meanwhile, struggled to take charge of rallies or the court. They were just left to react to the Serbians’ power and precision and came off second best.
Despite their experience, the Indians failed to bring their A game on the big points. ‘Bofors’ Bopanna has one of the best serves in Indian tennis, but he was the first to be broken in the match. His serve once again failed him, when he dropped serve at 5-4 up in the third set. Meanwhile, Myneni was just not getting enough balls in to keep India in the reckoning. He hit a tame return into the net to finish off what had been an underwhelming day for the team.
“I expected us to be 2-1 up after Saturday,” said Bhupathi. “We have to find a combination that works.”
In the last seven ties, India has tried six different combinations. And while the trial and error doesn’t set them back a great deal in the Asia-Oceania zonal matches, it just doesn’t wash against bigger teams.
While the doubles defeat was the final nail in the coffin for India in Kraljevo, they didn’t really set the stage alight in singles either. The team was missing the services of top-ranked singles player Yuki Bhambri and that of Divij Sharan, who had recently won an Asian games gold with Bopanna, in doubles.
But Serbia had essentially turned up with their least experienced team in recent times. US Open champion Novak Djokovic decided to skip the tie. Filip Krajinovic, ranked 33 in the world, was also forced out due to injury which meant Serbia essentially fielded their third-string team.
And India could still manage only one set in four matches.
Ramkumar Ramanathan had shown glimpses of hope this season when he made the final of the ATP event in Newport. But the 23-year-old hasn’t quite been the spearhead the Indian Davis Cup team has been lacking since the departure of Somdev Devvarman. On Friday, in the first singles of the day, he persisted with a chip and charge tactic that could only be described as foolhardy in the conditions.
He won only 12 of the 38 net points during his 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-2 loss to Laslo Djere. The Serbian not only had the speed but also the shots to thwart the Indian. Having slipped and twisted his ankle in the fifth game of the opening set, Djere had taken some time to recover and lost his serve in the next game and the set eventually. But he bounced back impressively and had the second set handed over on a platter when Ramkumar served a double fault on break and set point down.
In the second match of the day, Serbia’s highest-ranked player in the tie, Dusan Lajovic at 56, defeated Prajnesh Gunneswaran 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. It lacked the quality and intensity of a Davis Cup clash. While Lajovic had 18 winners and 49 unforced errors, the Indian was a shade worse at 15 winners and 64 unforced errors. Gunneswaran was also wasteful, converting only two of nine break opportunities.
“We are always playing way above our level in the World Group (playoff),” said Bhupathi on Saturday. “We had a couple glaring chances in matches 1 and 3 but didn’t capitalise and that’s the difference in being 2-1 up and 3-0 down.”
India certainly has been up against tough opponents in the past like the Czech Republic in 2015 and Spain in 2016 in the World Group Playoffs. But this Serbian team wasn’t exactly overwhelming on paper and the 0-4 final scoreline should give the Indians a measure of how much work needs to be done for them to be competitive in world tennis.
After winning the doubles rubber Petrovic said, “I don’t think we were outstanding but we did enough to win against a very experienced Indian team.” Even their ‘enough’ was too good for the Indian team.
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