Somdev Devvarman’s tireless legs and rampaging determination ran down the slumping challenge of Serbian Dusan Lajovic, as hosts India took the fight to the Serbian camp, pushing the No. 2 ranked Davis Cup team in the world into the decider on a sensational reverse singles day at Bangalore’s KSLTA courts. Somdev made it 2-2 for India a day after the Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna five-setter fightback. Somdev made the most of his second whack at the Serbians, winning a gruelling five-setter against their top player of the tie.
Yuki Bhambri was trailing Filip Krajinovic – a set down 3-6, and 4-4 in the second when rain halted play on Sunday. It will be played at 12 noon on Monday. The Serbians booked on a 4 am flight, might find the change in plans highly unsettling, though with a World Group spot to safeguard, the visitors will finally confront the challenge of the ‘home advantage.’
India’s home advantage in Davis Cup lies not on the grass that’s green or air that’s rent sultry by humidity and can sap the life out of foreigners; neither on the desperately hopeful kicking bounce (talk of the town) that’s supposed to aid the home team here. Though all of that can help.
The heart of India’s home advantage lies in the serve-and-volley legacy of generations of Indian Davis Cuppers, even if grass is no longer the preferred surface for home ties. Like any self-respecting Indian Cupper, Somdev is imbibing the treasured tradition, adding it – though belatedly to his repertoire — and the skill was on full display as he bossed over the frontcourt in what proved to be a defining difference in beating Serbian World. No 61 Lajovic 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 to secure one of the biggest wins of his Cup career and keeping a good record against the Serbs after having beaten Janko Tipsarevic two years ago.
It was at the net that Somdev found his game coming together, after he’d done the hardwork of soaking the early blows and started dictating his gameplan on the Serbian. Serving for the fourth set at 5-3, after the two had traded five consecutive breaks from the fourth game through to the eighth (on the back of some unsteady serves and some vengeful returns chasing the breaks), Somdev started with an ace in Game Nine. At set point, Paes, who had watched the baseline slugging from the bench, gestured him to move upfront. Somdev was at the net like a flash of lightning on his second serve, and promptly chipped the volley winner. The wily fox didn’t bother masking his glee as the 29-year old made the kill at the net.
“Lee reads the game really well. He told me that under pressure the opponent is likely to stand back (he was 10 m behind baseline), and that’s exactly what happened,” Somdev later said.
With the match settling into a lull of baseline play, Somdev’s rushes to the net helped surprise his opponent on the big points in the closing stages. The change in tactics – with non-playing skipper Anand Amritraj and Paes overseeing the execution from the sideline, proved decisive in closing out the match when long, grinding rallies had gotten predictable for the Serbian.
Lajovic who has an impressive array of strokes — apart from the backhand crosscourts and down-the-lines and some midcourt drives — has a glaring aversion to the serve-volley and Somdev exploited that to the hilt employing his own drop-shots, as the match progressed and the Indian’s movement struck the sort of fluency that saw him get into position early and use the whole court rather than restricting his options to deep groundstrokes.
Earlier, momentum swung wildly as both players took turns in strewing their games with errors, and suffered mini-implosions. Somdev was broken as early as 3-1 and then once more in the opening set as Lajovic used his backhand to keep the rallies short and snappy.
Trouble started for the Serb in the second set, when Somdev after steadying his serve began to prolong the rallies, slow down the pace and employ his original plan of tiring him out. As the points got longer and Somdev started moving with confidence and brazening his returns, Lajovic’s serve started cracking and Somdev won almost 90 percent of the points on the stretched-out rallies.
It seemed to mentally tire out Lajovic, who also locked his heel a tad while sliding for a forehand and needed some medical attention. Déjà vu, from Saturday’s doubles match where a medical break for Nenad Zimonjic had fired up the Indian doubles pairing. Somdev, whose very un-Indian deep groundstrokes when counterpunching and ability to hang in there compensate for a lack of a special weapon, was helped by the Serbian’s impatience when he failed to finish short points.
Dragging the match into the decider was most of the battle won, as Lajovic crumbled in the final set, broken at 2-1 and 5-2. Somdev sealed the match with a forehand crosscourt, making good his promise to Paes-Bopanna that he wouldn’t flub another chance. “It was inspiring to watch them comeback. I’d told them after Friday’s match that I wanted a chance and it was great to have them courtside,” he said.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
Against Brazil in the playoffs four years ago in Chennai, the doubles pairing of Paes-Bhupathi had brought India back after the home team lost its first day singles to go down 0-2. Bopanna and Somdev had returned on Day 3 to clinch the tie against Thomaz Bellucci and Ricardo Mello.
Lajovic’s backhand is a thing of beauty, but like any other delicate skill, the single-hander can melt under brute force, and the Indian opted to wear it down in the long rallies, testing it for consistency rather than cuteness in the attritional battles on the baseline. It fetches the Serbian some brilliance, but can’t be summoned for the bread-and-butter winners.
There was an oozing backhand crosscourt from corner to corner at 15-all, 2-5 in the fifth set, and a half-dozen passing shots that got the partisan crowd to pause and applaud. But against Somdev’s all-court game and stubbornness, it came undone and looked distinctly star-crossed.