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At 40-0, Prajnesh Gunneswaran prepared for his serve like it was any other point. He had a spot marked out, and slammed an ace down the T. It was one confident way to finish off a match, especially on your Davis Cup debut.
That was the story all night.
For the duration of match, 2:24 hrs to be exact, he kept up the level of play, whipping his forehand relentlessly, while chipping in with the towering serve. He beat Uzbekistan’s spearhead Sanjar Fayziev 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, to give India a 2-0 lead in the second round Asia/Oceania Group 1 Davis Cup tie in Bangalore. It was the perfect start for new non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi.
In the opening rubber on Day 1, India’s highest ranked singles player Ramkumar Ramanathan took four sets to dispatch Temur Ismailov. Bhupathi has enjoyed some beginners’ luck, as the Uzbek challenge was marred with physical concerns. They lost their talisman, Denis Istomin to a heel injury days before the tie.
On Friday, while Ismailov struggled with cramps, Fayziev had to overcome a harsher ailment. Fayziev stopped abruptly in the middle of the court, and bent over, clutching his chest. In middle of the sixth game of the third set, when he was trailing 0-40, he walked over to his bench to talk to his captain Petr Lebed, holding his chest. There was no objection from the umpire, nor from the Indian team. The teams and officials, after all, knew Fayziev has a heart condition, arrhythmia.
The 22-year-old was already a break up in the third set, after losing the first and winning the second, when he struggled to catch his breath, followed by pain in the chest. The condition – that causes irregular heartbeat – helped Prajnesh turn things around.
Till then, the Tashkent-native had matched the Indian shot-for-shot, and had even gone one better with his forays into the net. The two had contested a close first set before Fayziev threatened to run away with the match. He won the second set comfortably and took a 3-1 lead in the third, before feeling a pain in his chest.
While Ramkumar struggled to focus after Ismailov cramped, Prajnesh continued with his laser focus. His explosive forehand wreaked havoc in Fayziev’s steadily faltering defence. “He has a big game, big serve, big forehands. Big weapons,” says Bhupathi after the match. “It’s not every day you see an Indian player with two weapons. The kind of level he kept up throughout the match is a sign of things to come.”
The 27-year-old came into the tie with the best possible preparation. He’d reached the final of three consecutive Future events, winning two. Three weeks ago, he had made the final of the Bangalore tournament, and looked best equipped to handle the pace and bounce of the court among the four singles players on Friday. “I decided to play a few Futures and get matches to work on preparing for the tie,” he says. “I was nervous, but I approached it as I would a regular match. I was a bit surprised that I felt alright.”
The two wins will help releasing pressure on the other Davis Cup debutant on the team. N Sriram Balaji, chosen as Bhupathi’s third singles player, will compete with Rohan Bopanna in the doubles rubber on Saturday.
On his first day in the captain’s chair, Bhupathi carried on with his trademark nonchalance, only springing into action when there were dubious calls to be argued. It was a demeanour that worked well to calm the nerves of the mercurial Ramkumar, who was threatening a meltdown when he lost the second set to Ismailov, and debutant Prajnesh. “We expected a lot of drama. Ramkumar hasn’t won many matches coming into the tie and he was low on confidence. But he’s a grinder and he finds a way to win,” Bhupathi says.
He didn’t have to do much for Prajnesh. The world number 287 was as sharp and sure as any Indian player has been on debut. He has made a strong case for himself, especially when Bhupathi has a full squad to choose from in the future.