Jim Courier had spoken. In Idaho, where 20,000 Americans screamed their lungs out cheering for Team USA in the Davis Cup in April 2013, Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic had found the smug declaration by the former champ (now expert) that the Bryan brothers were unconquerable, a shade annoying. Spoken like that – ‘US can never lose at doubles in a Davis Cup tie till the Bryans play’ – Courier’s claims were reasonable given the twins’ dominance. Truth hurt.
So, when Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac (Zimo-Bojo) silenced those 20,000 at the Taco Bell Arena by getting the better of doubles’ most-successful pairing, Obradovic had the last, and lasting laugh. “We’re not a bad team, though we are up against one of India’s best combinations fielded in the Davis Cup. Leander has been a part of many battles, and Bopanna is very good,” the Serbian captain said, ahead of the weekend tie – where India fight to get into the 16-team World Group and Serbia will fight to stay.
Day 2 of Davis Cup doubles at KSLTA will pit four of the most battle-hardened practitioners across the court, even as the relative greenhorns prep for attritional combats on either side of Saturday. Zimonjic and Bozoljac are Serbia’s seniors who despite jamming together only on Cup weekends have some memorable matches against their names – including against Great Britain a few years ago and the Indians (Somdev and Bopanna) apart from the Bryans scalp. The Serbs also pushed the Canadians all the way last season, before losing a thriller.
“The Bryans win gave us confidence, but it also increased the pressure on us. Now because we’ve beaten the best, people expect us to win always,” Bozoljac said, adding, “but if you give into pressure and take favourites-underdogs tags seriously, you block your success. We’ll deal with the Indians on the day, and are preparing for it.”
His success with Zimonjic is down to his taller partner closing out points quickly while he sets up the winners with his offensive play. “If it was someone less aggressive, my faults would’ve been highlighted. But he really understands my doubles style,” the 28-year-old said.
No secrets here
Interestingly, Bozoljac was alongside Somdev Devvarman when the Indian claimed his first Challenger title, and he is pally with the Indian singles spearhead who has a Serbian fitness coach. “Almost all of us know the Indians players well on the Tour because we’ve played together. The intimate knowledge of each other’s games will add to the intrigue,” he says.
In doubles’ highly tennis-incestuous world on the circuit, where players hook up with partners while travelling and have faced each other if not played alongside often, there’s no dearth of inputs to fill up dossiers. “Leander knows Zimo’s game very well, so his inputs are priceless,” Rohan Bopanna says, as he preps to play one of the most crucial ties of his career. It was one reason – given how evenly contested singles would be – why Bopanna didn’t hesitate to pick the phone and dial Leander, asking him to come on board.
“We have the experience and he’ll help soak pressure in a match where 4 top quality players will be seen in action. It’s a challenging match,” Bopanna says. Though most put Indians at a slight advantage owing to home conditions and their naturally complementary games, Leander predicts a stiff fight.
For Paes who has always sought to pair up with Bopanna, the call was also vindication of his belief that the two could form a potent combination. “I’ve always thought he is a top class doubles player who hasn’t yet won a Grand Slam. Had been wanting to play at the Olympics with him too. We’ve both had a tough year as individuals (their rankings dropped to No 27 and No 35 respectively), but I’m looking forward to set up a playing style with him in this tie. I want to give him the freedom to play shots and lead the team,” said the enior pro. Communication will be all-important as they try to forge a combination.
Paes is hoping to ride the home-support wave, and insists that whoever plays the big points well will win. Bozoljac believes that while the Indians start favourites for Day 2, it is the proceedings of Day 1 that will cast a straight shadow on Saturday. “It depends on whether we go into Day 2 as 0-2, 1-1 or 2-0. If India’s 2-0 down they’ll be tight and the experience advantage will be negated. We can put pressure then,” the Serb, with a double-handed forehand, says.
Bozoljac is no stranger to improvising having picked that unorthodox shot after the wooden racquet he started out with was too heavy forcing him to reinforce with a two hander. But he’ll be wary of the man with the magically reflexive hands. “Paes is crucial. Very,” he says.
Paes briefly played with the big man Zimonjic, but as deuce court players they were doomed to not gel, making the Serb one of Paes’s lesser successful partnerships from the 90-odd he’s had. But the association was enough to give him insights into the big man’s game. Though the Serb holds an edge when playing against Paes (5 won, 1 lost), he will need to contend with the variable weapon – Bopanna. Just as the Indians will need to decipher Bozoljac, the unpredictable, lesser known partner.
Home advantage? Not really says Serb captain
Bangalore: With the Serbians reaching Bangalore almost a week before the Davis Cup tie, the visiting captain Bogdan Obradovic sought to make light of the home advantage that Indians will enjoy heading into the Davis Cup World Group play-off. Home advantage equates weather and crowd support and Obradovic was keen to prove that both might well be negated.
“It’s actually not all that bad here in Bengaluru. We were expecting worse. My players train in Florida where humidity is very high. This is quite cool. It’s better than Chennai!” he chuckled.
On the crowds, he said that travelling away could actually be a blessing in disguise. “Last final against the France, we came under immense pressure from the home crowd, and couldn’t win. We prefer to play outside Serbia, so pressure’s less,” he said.
At Bangalore’s altitude, the ball certainly flies higher, but the Serb captain claimed his boys had acclimatised enough to the high bounce.
The Indians meantime insisted that ensuring that the Serbs were made to stay on the court longer would be their strategy, hoping that the heat would drain the life out of their challenge. It’s a tried and tested strategy for India, to puncture plans of the final day of the tie — Sunday. — ENS