You really couldn’t have faulted India’s scheming. In this searing heat, it was only natural for them to assume the Czechs would melt. The hosts customised their game-plan to this end – indulge the European giants in long rallies, stretch the matches to fourth set and break them down under the scorching sun. It was a well thought-out strategy. In doing so, however, they seemed to have overestimated their own fitness.
It couldn’t have been more apparent than in the reverse singles tie on Sunday. At 4-4 in the second set, Yuki Bhambri had three break points against world No. 40 Jiri Vesely’s serve. It was a pivotal moment in the rubber and the tie. Having lost the first set, a break here would have given Bhambri an opportunity to take the match beyond three sets, something the Indians had been yearning to do all weekend.
If Bhambri had looked across the net, he would have seen Vesely appearing sapped, his t-shirt soaked in sweat and legs heavy. Instead, the 24-year-old Indian stretched his calf muscles, buried his head in the towel and took a breather before receiving Vesely’s serve. It was an indication enough for the Czech to realise his opponent was equally tired, if not more. Using big serves to his advantage, Vesely bailed himself out of the only threat he faced in the match, and swung momentum his way. He would break Bhambri twice in the third set to ultimately win the match 6-3 7-5 6-2.
The world’s top-ranked Davis Cup team took an unassailable 3-1 lead in the tie to keep their record of qualifying for the World Group every year since 2006. India, meanwhile, continue to stay in the Asia/Oceania Group I and will feature in the zonal tie next year. With the tie already decided, both teams decided to do away with the second reverse singles involving Somdev Devvarman and Lukas Rosol.
Like the moment when Bhambri and Vesely were tied 4-4 in the second set, there were plenty of such occasions over the three days where a point here or there could have tipped the scales in the hosts’ favour. Looking back, break points on 5-5 in the third set for Bhambri against Rosol on Friday and the same score line in first set of the doubles rubber the following day could have changed the course of the tie.
But these were just half-a-dozen points in four matches where India were otherwise overpowered by the Czechs. On talent alone, this was a no-match. Czech Republic is the world’s top-ranked team. In the run-up to the tie, India had publicly acknowledged that their only hope of winning the tie was by tiring their opponents out in Delhi’s extreme humidity.
It has historically been India’s tactic to choose a venue and conditions which exploit opponents’ weakness. In this case, though, they seem to have ignored the fact that most Indians play in Europe and the US for major part of the year. Bhambri did not look like lasting three sets, let alone five, in both his singles rubbers. The ageing pair of Leander Paes, 42, and Rohan Bopanna, 42, too did not have the legs and will to stretch Radek Stepanek and Adam Pavlasek to five sets in the doubles.
Bopanna said the conditions were tough for the Indians as much as they were for the Czechs. “It’s not like we play in these conditions often. All of us play abroad most of the times so it was tough as well to play out there,” Bopanna said.
Bhambri evidently struggled in the heat, even though he claimed that he was the fitter among the two players. The local lad wouldn’t stretch to get his racquet on wide serves by Vesely. Nor would he chase the balls that found the tram lines. During changeovers, he would sit in the shade and soak himself in iced towels. Vesely, too, was visibly tired but he was better prepared mentally.
At the beginning of the third set, Somdev Devvarman stood at the side line and instructed Bhambri to keep Vesely, whom he had beaten in straight sets on Friday, on court for a longer duration. Bhambri didn’t utter a word. Knowing, perhaps, he himself did not have enough energy to last longer.