Death, taxes and the doubles dilemma in Indian tennis, those are the things inevitable in life. AITA on Monday did precious little to dissuade that last predicament, opting to announce a list of six probables for the Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan with no settled doubles combination.
The selection committee named singles players Ramkumar Ramanathan, Yuki Bhambri, Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Sriram Balaji and doubles specialists Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna. While Paes has been retained after two defeats in as many ties, Bopanna — who pulled out of the tie against Spain and was dropped against New Zealand — makes a return.
The tentative squad is a result of indecision over picking two singles-two doubles players or three-singles one-doubles specialist, with new non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi to take the final call, days before the opening rubber on April 7. However, both Bhupathi and coach Zeeshan Ali have indicated that they will prefer picking one doubles specialist. If that ends up being the case, Bhupathi would have to choose between Bopanna and Paes, and one can guess how that toss-up would pan out.
The logic offered behind the 3+1 combination is the depth of the Uzbekistan team – led by world number 68 Denis Istomin – and India’s need to have a reserve singles player. However with two doubles losses in as many ties, a specialist doubles pair seems the way to go, especially with Istomin prepared to play all three days.
Then there’s the combination itself. Saketh Myneni’s injury has robbed the team of any flexibility. Save for a mishap, Ramanathan and Bhambri – heroes from last month’s tie against New Zealand – are a shoo-in for the final four. But Ramanathan is untested in doubles and there are concerns over Bhambri playing all three days. That leaves Bhupathi hard-pressed to choose between Bopanna (world No. 23) and Leander Paes (56) – India’s highest ranked doubles players or uncapped Gunneswaran and Balaji.
But here’s where it gets tricky. Fielding a pairing of Bopanna and Paes comes with its own challenges. On court, the two should be a natural fit in theory, what with Bopanna’s powerful serves and groundstrokes and Paes’ impeccable netplay. However, the duo has a record of 2-2 in Davis Cup, including a defeat to Istomin’s Uzbekistan in 2012.
Bopanna has gone on record saying his game is not compatible with Paes’, which brings us to the off-court tension.
There is no love lost between Bopanna and Paes and the selection fiasco from the last two Olympic Games is still fresh in everybody’s mind. Bopanna famously chose Bhupathi over Paes for London and was forced to team with the latter in Rio, where the pair suffered a first-round exit and has traded barbs since then.
The two have been in form though. Paes has reached the semifinals at Delray Beach and Dubai Open. Bopanna won the Chennai Open to start the season and beat Paes to reach Dubai final. Over the next three weeks – Bhupathi’s cut-off time to make his mind – both Paes and Bopanna will likely play at the Indian Wells and Miami Open.
At 43, chances are running out for Paes to clinch that elusive 43rd win and beat Italy’s Nicola Pietrangeli to become the most successful doubles player in Davis Cup. Fittingly enough, the ball is in former partner Bhupathi’s court.
No matter how that unfolds, one thing is for sure. Doubles is set to remain the sole talking point in a competition which offers four out of five points to singles players. Watch this space for the next episode in the long-running Indian tennis soap opera.