India aim to take advantage of Italians not being comfortable on grass during Davis Cup tie.
It is an irony that Leander Paes is not part of the six-member Indian squad for a Cup tie on grass in his backyard. While picking the players, the AITA selection committee reportedly went by the rankings. Rohan Bopanna, the highest-ranked Indian doubles player at 37 at the moment, along with Divij Sharan, 40, made the cut to play the doubles. Over the past few weeks, Paes’s ranking has had been on a slide. It slipped 19 places to peg the 45-year-old back at 78 in the ATP Tour table.
Then again, it’s a Davis Cup tie at South Club and the veteran has always punched above his weight/rankings while playing for the country. Just about 10-odd months ago, Paes had rolled back the years to help India win the doubles against China after the visitors had lost both the singles in Tianjin.
Without him in a home rubber against Italy, starting on Friday, India might have already conceded some home advantage.Mahesh Bhupathi disagreed. At the press conference on Wednesday, India’s non-playing captain was asked if Paes’s absence in his backyard would be a disadvantage for the team. “No, it’s not,” his reply was terse.
Bhupathi chose to focus on Prajnesh Gunneswaran’s upsurge in form instead, the progress that has taken the 29-year-old to a career-high 102 in the latest ATP rankings.“Prajnesh has got a big serve, big forehand, and he is a left-hander. I think it’s the captain’s dream to have that kind of variation in your side. And for me it’s even a bigger bonus that Prajnesh is now almost near top-100 in the world. So he is obviously brimming with confidence,” Bhupathi said.
With Ramkumar Ramanathan as the other singles player, the non-playing captain even drew a cricket analogy to count on the positives. “In cricket, the opening pair wants to go left and right. And on Day One I’m going left-right. I think it’s a great variation to have.”
Bhupathi felt both Gunneswaran and Ramanathan, along with Yuki Bhambri, would break into top 70 by the year-end.As for the present, though, it looks a bit of a mismatch on paper despite the fact that Fabio Fognini, No.15 in the ATP Tour singles ranking, has opted out. Marco Cecchinato, No.19, leads the Italian challenge followed by Andreas Seppi at 37 and Matteo Berrettini, 53. Davis Cup, though, revels in its glorious uncertainties, notwithstanding a changed format and the matches getting to three-setters.
In fact, Bhupathi is excited that the truncated structure could play to India’s advantage. “When you are trying to beat players who are better than you, it’s always easier to do it in two sets rather than three out of five. So, when it comes to playing big teams who are constantly in the World Group, I think this change in format is great for the Indian team.”
India might be the underdogs, but they are confident about pulling off an upset. “Internally, within the 10 of us (including the coaching staff), I think the conversation has never changed. There’s a belief that everyone can contribute to hopefully upset the Italians,” Bhupathi said.
Italians are not used to playing on grass. None of the current squad member has played a Davis Cup fixture on grass. This is the reason why India chose to play this tie at South Club. “We definitely felt that this is our best chance to beat Italy on grass and not on hard courts or clay because of their strengths. We will know about that on Saturday, if the advantage played out for us or not. So we have got the grass now, I don’t think we have any room for excuses anymore,” Bhupathi said.
If India lose this tie, Bhupathi could be under pressure.
Also, Paes’ non-inclusion, although it was the selectors’ decision, might snowball into an issue. “Well, it’s not for me to comment (on this). There’s a selection committee, there’s an AITA, who have their opinions. And the current trend is that they would play only one (specialist) doubles player,” Leander’s father, Vece Paes told The Indian Express.But South Club is where Paes started his journey as an eight-year-old. Even setting aside the emotions, his experience might have helped the Indian team.
Italy ready for challenge
Italy’s Davis Cup captain Corrado Barazzutti on Wednesday acknowledged that playing on the ‘unfamiliar’ grass court will be their biggest challenge. “That is the court and we have nothing to complain,” Barazzutti, who was a member of their only Davis Cup winning team of 1976, said. “India decided to play here as they think grass is more difficult for us. Italian team has not played a lot on grass but it is okay. We know we have to play very well. We play this match with a lot of respect for these players.”