The All India Tennis Association (AITA) has decided on sending six players, including two reserves, for India’s away tie against Canada in the Davis Cup World Group Playoff in September. It is learnt that Yuki Bhambri, Ramkumar Ramanathan, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, Saketh Myneni, N Sriram Balaji and Rohan Bopanna will be picked in Monday’s meeting, and the team captain Mahesh Bhupathi will later decide the final four for the tie.
The team strategy, three singles players and one doubles, makes room only for one doubles specialist. Consequently, veteran Leander Paes has been overlooked in place of the higher ranked Bopanna. In fact, Paes was not even approached to check his availability for the tie. “We didn’t check about his availability because we wanted to select a team based on ranking,” says AITA general secretary Hironmoy Chatterjee. “That will be the main basis for selection in the future as well.”
The ranking criteria, however, remains obscure when considering the omission of Vishnu Vardhan, who had partnered Paes for the doubles rubber against New Zealand in February. The 30-year-old, who like Balaji and Myneni is adept at playing both singles and doubles, has won three doubles Challengers on the trot – two with Balaji. Though Vardhan’s singles ranking, 425, is short of Balaji’s 297, his 133 rank in doubles is 13 places higher. Both Balaji and Myneni’s selection will be based more on their abilities as doubles players to help them partner Bopanna.
Curiously, though, the likes of Divij Sharan (53), Purav Raja (54), Paes (62) and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan (95) are also higher ranked than him. At the same time, Myneni’s six month injury layoff that ended in July saw his rank dip drastically (442 in singles and tied 965 in doubles).
Bopanna, meanwhile, makes for a firm choice in the team given his stellar run of form this season. The world no. 21 has so far won the Chennai Open and the Monte Carlo Masters along with finishing as finalist of the ATP 500 Dubai Open in February. His crowning moment came later at the French Open when he won the mixed doubles title, making him only the fourth Indian to win a Grand Slam title. He was scheduled to play the final of Montreal Masters late on Sunday night.
Paes, on the other hand, has not had a productive year. Though he’s reached five ATP tour semi-finals and won three Challengers, his 2016 year-end ranking of 59 has dipped to the current 62. He even proved to be the weaker player during the doubles rubber loss against New Zealand. For the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan, he did travel to Bangalore before unceremoniously leaving after being dropped from the squad on form – for the first time in 27 years. Paes’ abrupt departure drew the ire of team captain Bhupathi, with whom Paes has shared an acrimonious relationship.
Canada’s weakest link
The question now remains who will partner Bopanna for India’s fourth World Group playoff in as many years. Myneni and Balaji are the two options at hand for the 37-year-old. And the doubles rubber becomes even more crucial since Canada’s doubles team will arguably be the side’s weakest link.
The North Americans haven’t announced their team, but are likely to field Vasek Pospisil and 44-year-old Daniel Nestor – both regulars on the ATP tour. Canada’s singles field remains strong, with world no 10 Milos Raonic likely to lead the charge along with Pospisil (75) and teenager Denis Shapovalov who became the youngest singles player to reach a Masters semifinal in Montreal just last week. Raonic, in turn, hasn’t played Davis Cup since 2015, owing to injuries before the ties. Currently, he’s nursing a wrist injury that saw him exit early at his home Masters event.
The Indian singles lineup has been in good form, as well. Bhambri recently pulled off his career best run by reaching the quarterfinals of the Washington Open, an ATP 500 event, after defeating world no 22 Gael Monfils. Ramkumar, meanwhile, reached a career high 168 after beating current world no 7 Dominic Thiem in June. He then stretched 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis to three sets in the next round.
Fitness though remains a worry for the Indian singles players, especially when it comes to playing five sets. “They aren’t used to it because the only time they play five set matches is at Grand Slams or Davis Cup,” says team coach Zeeshan Ali. “Davis Cup happens twice or thrice a year, and we don’t often reach a main draw at Slams. So we need a third player who can play both singles and doubles.”
This will be the second Davis Cup tie for captain Bhupathi, and the most important one till date. India has played Serbia, Czech Republic and the Rafael Nadal-led Spain in their last three World Group playoffs. “Canada is the weakest of the lot,” Ali adds.