Feliciano Lopez didn’t have to think much when he was asked to analyse India’s strength. “Doubles,” the world no. 17 said. “Leander (Paes) is among the best doubles players in the last 20 years. He has played well with Mahesh (Bhupathi) and others on tour. Sure he will be a threat with Rohan (Bopanna) as well.”
That’s when he was reminded that Bopanna has pulled out. “Ah, well…” he stammered, not bothering to add much. Much of Spain’s focus in the build up to this weekend’s Davis Cup world group playoff tie has been to negate the ‘threat’ posed by India’s doubles pair. But as things stands, they wouldn’t have to worry much for India’s biggest strength.
Davis Cup Saturdays have often produced moments of heroics and hope for Indian tennis. Think of the stunning straight sets win by Paes and Bhupathi over much-fancied Atlanta Olympics silver medallists from Britain, Tim Henman and Neil Broad, back in a 1998 World Group playoff tie (which was in complete contradiction to then British captain David Lloyd’s pre-match prediction, “We’ll win in three quick sets”, according to a report in The Independent). Or, more recently, the stunning comeback by Paes and Bopanna against Serbian duo of Nenad Zimonjic and Illiya Bozoljac in another World Group playoff in Bangalore two years ago.
‘A little spoilt’
But as Paes recently joked, perhaps India got a ‘little spoilt’ with his and Bhupathi’s magical 25-2 win-loss run. The doubles options have been thinning in the last few years, and the only point which India could really bank on earlier, too has gradually become iffy. The frosty relationship between Paes and Bopanna meant the two never really were as reliable as Paes and Bhupathi, who despite their differences managed to get the job done on court.
The murmur on the courtside now is that India are better of without Paes and Bopanna pairing together. Against Czech Republic last year, it was the terribly frustrating performance by the two of them that eventually let the team down; just like the Rio Olympics last month.
As they practiced on Monday and Tuesday nights, there was an element of freshness to the Indian squad. “I have played through nine generations of players and hence whoever they put me with, I am ready. It does not matter. My job is to nurture the young players,” Paes said, referring to junior Wimbledon doubles winner Sumit Nagal and Myneni.
But freshness alone doesn’t make India competitive. In Spain, they are up against a team that boasts of a solid doubles combination. Rather, combinations.
Like Paes for India, Marc Lopez is a certain starter for Spain for the doubles rubber. Who’ll share the court with him remains a mystery. With Feliciano, Marc lost in the semifinals of the US Open. But the Lopez-and-Lopez combination ended Spain’s 26-year wait for a doubles title on clay when they beat the Bryans at the French Open earlier this year.
The duo were to pair up at the Olympics as well. But Feliciano pulled out of Olympics citing scheduling challenges. Consequently, Marc paired up with Rafa Nadal. The duo hadn’t played anywhere in run up to Rio but ended up with a gold with much ease. Spain’s non-playing captain Conchita Martinez said they will finalise their pair only after Friday’s singles rubbers.
Between devil and deep sea
So an untested Indian doubles combination will either face the reigning French Open champions, or the Olympic gold medallists. India’s non-playing captain Anand Amritraj insisted doubles still is India’s best chance for a point. “Doubles has always been our strength. That is still our best shot to win a match. Lopez and Lopez were seeded 8th at US Open. On a court like this we have a chance. It’s closer to 50-50 and than singles. Definitely have a chance no questions about that,” he said. “We will choose our pair after seeing how the matches go on Friday.”
Like Spain, India too are spoilt for choices. But it’s in the quality where the difference lies.