A set up. And a comfortable 5-4 lead in the second. Saketh Myneni had lost just nine points on his serve so far. But Spain had a break point and, for the first time, he was under pressure on his serve. Having dominated the rally, Myneni had virtually the whole court to finish the point and get back on deuce. But he tried a backhand drop volley. And missed.
This eventually turned out to be the most critical, and turning, point for two reasons. Sharing the court with an Olympic gold medal winning Spanish team and a doubles legend in Leander Paes, Myneni was trying hard to prove he belonged there. However, that point seemed to have killed his confidence. His serves weren’t the same anymore and went into a shell.
But more importantly, that point gave Spain the break, swung the momentum in their favour and woke up Rafael Nadal. The world No. 4 looked towards his bench and pointed a finger to his temple, appearing to be rather angry with himself. Mind is what Nadal and Marc Lopez hadn’t applied till then, relying more on brawn. Once the two old friends started thinking and communicating, they started to crawl back into the match. Eventually, the Spaniards won 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-4 to return to the Davis Cup World Group after two years.
But it was after that point – at 5-4 in the second set – that Nadal started playing like Nadal. Till then, it was all about Paes. Nights like these make you wonder if Paes is an anti-hero of Indian tennis or a superhero. He kept India alive in the match till the very last point virtually single-handedly, hand-holding Myneni through it.
If Friday was about brute force, Saturday was all about deft, delicate touches; about finding impossible angles and not merely thwacking the ball from the baseline. And through it all, Paes reminded everyone of his class in doubles – if it needed any reminding, that is. He gave the Spaniards a masterclass in the backhand slice, playing it with such precision that the ball – hit with venomous pace — would drop dead right at the net.
Nadal – the same Nadal who could chase down everything thrown at him – was often wrong-footed or merely stood there in admiration of Paes’ artistry. But that wasn’t enough for India to pull off what would have been one of the biggest upsets of their Davis Cup history. It was always going to be a tall order for Paes and Myneni, who were playing together for the first time and were getting to know each other better as the match progressed.
Nadal and Lopez, on the other hand, have been close friends for almost 15 years. Lopez was an aspiring singles player but couldn’t break into the top 100, so took the doubles path. On tour, he regularly partners Feliciano Lopez and Marcel Granollers but has occasionally teamed up with Nadal. And when they have played together, they have won big. The Rio Olympics gold is a point in case.
Lopez said the trust between him and Nadal was one of the key reasons that they could scrape through this tie.
He was the one being targeted by the Indians on Saturday night. So Nadal, standing closer to the sideline than he generally does during singles, used his experience to bail them out. His uncle Toni had once said how his defence-oriented game did not suit his aggressive on-court personality. Doubles brings that out in him. He is animated and talks a lot. And in Lopez, he had a partner who reciprocated.
Nadal used his spin well on his serve. He was quick at the net, though not necessarily as deft as Paes. But the spin and angles he generated with his powerful ground strokes made the difference. The Indian duo could hardly counter that.
This part of Nadal’s doubles game became apparent only towards the end of the second set, when Spain were really cornered. They somehow managed to cross the line. To them, that’s what mattered. “Doubles was always going to be tough, with Leander in it. We are just happy to win it and return to the World Group. To me, that’s where we belong,” Nadal later said.
That was the target Spain had set themselves when they landed in India last Monday. On Saturday, their task was made tough by a gritty Indian duo. But they managed to achieve it, nevertheless.