The first blow is half the battle. Underdogs going into the Davis Cup World Group Playoff against Canada, India ended Day 1 with the tie level and the hosts rattled. Gutsy performances from India’s singles players and the fortuitous absence of a key Canadian helped shed all ideas of a one-sided contest.
With experienced Vasek Pospisil unavailable for singles duties because of a bad back, Canada fielded two players who had never won a live Davis Cup rubber — a baptism by fire which could have led to a 2-0 lead for India. Ramkumar Ramanathan defeated debutant Brayden Schnur 5-7, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 7-5 in the opening rubber and while Yuki Bhambri lost 6-7(2), 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4, 6-1 to Denis Shapovalov, the 25-year-old stretched tennis’ fast-rising commodity to his first five-setter.
“This was for sure the longest I have been on the court,” said Shapovalov after the three hours 52 minute-match. “He was playing too good.” When asked in the post-match interview what he learnt from playing five sets, Shapovalov replied, “I learnt that I don’t want to go the limit ever again.”
A lot was made of Shapovalov and his dream season which has seen the teenager go from 250 to 51 this year. With wins over Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in August and a run to US Open fourth round as a qualifier, Shapovalov was expected to steamroll through the lowly-ranked Indians. However, on Friday, Bhambri kept up with the favourite, even as the lefty came out blasting with the flashy game that has made the hockey nation sit down and take notice.
Spurred on by the sizeable home support at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum, Shapovalov powered through the first set, blasting seven aces and putting ample pressure on Bhambri’s service. He then secured the match’s first break in the seventh game of the second set to take 2-0 lead.
Bhambri, however, refused to wilt under the fiery, but increasingly erratic forehand of his opponent. He ran down the groundstrokes and kept putting one more ball back, stretching the rallies by playing to the backhand. And once Shapovalov wasted the match point in the third set tie-break, it seemed the tide had turned. Bhambri forced the fourth set, putting Shapovalov in uncharted territory. The teenager had never outright won a five-setter match past the third set; his four-set win over Kyle Edmund at the US Open was due to the Brit retiring with a back injury.
On the other hand, Bhambri had won his only other five-setter in Davis Cup five years ago in similar fashion, when he overcame a two-set deficit against New Zealand’s Daniel King-Turner in Chandigarh. Shapovalov handed Bhambri a break in the fourth set with sluggish errors and the Indian marched on to level the match.
But where he should have pressed on, Bhambri opted for a long bathroom break which gave Shapovalov a precious few minutes to recover and talk strategy with captain Martin Laurendeau. “That time, Marty told me to play more with spin. Take the foot off the gas pedal off and put in lot of returns,” Shapovalov said after the match. The second wind and tactic change caught Bhambri off guard, as Shapovalov secured an early break and the second in the set to close out the match. Bhambri should take a lot of heart out of the defeat but would do well to up the ante. Shapovalov was 20-2 on aces and 45-21 on total winners.
Earlier in the day, Ramanathan gave India the advantage after overcoming a jittery start. Schnur, who played college tennis in North Carolina and turned pro this summer, won the first set and was in a position to win the second but wasted five break points. He wasted six more in the tenth game of the third set and converted only two of four in the fourth set to lose the rubber in three hours 16 minutes. “It was my first (best of five game),” Schnur said after the match. “We only had best-of-threes in college.”
With a point on board, and Sunday’s live rubbers a certainty, Rohan Bopanna and Purav Raja will look to put India 2-1 ahead with a win in the doubles rubber. Canada’s veteran Daniel Nestor has lost his last five matches and Pospisil is still nursing his back.
If India’s singles pile on similar pressure on the final day, the underdogs may just find themselves in the World Group.