In the last four seasons, India’s Davis Cup team has come close to making it to the World Group, but fallen at the final playoff stage. That run began with a 3-2 defeat to Serbia at the playoffs in Bangalore in 2013. And now as the team prepares for its fifth attempt at making it back to the elite top 16 teams, it’s an away trip against Serbia again that stands in the way.
The All India Tennis Association’s selection committee has announced a six-man strong team to compete in the tie that starts on September 14. The three singles players are straightforward picks based on the current world rankings.
Yuki Bhambri, India’s highest ranked player at 96, spearheads the singles roster also comprising of Ramkumar Ramanathan (134) and Prajnesh Gunneswaran (160). They will be joined by the top-ranked doubles players Rohan Bopanna (37) and Divij Sharan (38), who recently won India’s only gold medal in the tennis events of the Asian Games. Additionally, world no 325 Saketh Myneni has been named in the squad. “Saketh’s inclusion was to provide the players with a sparring partner,” explains selection committee chairman and former team captain SP Misra.
“The captain (Mahesh Bhupathi) wanted him in the team in case Rohan and Divij make it to the second week of the US Open and get a bit delayed in travelling to Serbia. In that case, Saketh, with his big serves, will be useful in helping the other players prepare.” The Serbian team has picked the indoor courts of the Kraljevo Sports Venue to host the event. The slow clay courts picked are specific to Serbia’s strength. It’s also the surface the Indians are most uncomfortable playing on.
Serbian captain Nenad Zimonjic had said in April, “we shall play on clay since that surface suits us. Also, for India, that is their weakest surface.”
As a result, Bhupathi is organizing another training camp ahead of the trip to Kraljevo to help his players adjust to the conditions.
“It’ll probably be in Belgrade about a week before the tie. Whoever can make it will get a chance to get a few sets on the clay courts. Condition-wise, that’ll be the biggest factor because we play a lot of matches on hard courts but not much on slow bouncing clay,” Misra adds.
Should the conditions be mastered though, there’s still the proposition of playing against a team with a host of quality players. Currently, four Serbians occupy top 100 rankings in singles, including 13-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic. The 31-year-old however may not make himself available for the tie due to its close proximity to the US Open – Djokovic is expected to make it to the latter stages of the Grand Slam. In that case, the task of leading the team will fall on world no 33 Filip Krajinovic, followed by world no 62 Dusan Lajovic, who had played and won the crucial fifth rubber against the Indians in Bangalore. Meanwhile veteran Viktor Troicki too may compete.
“Any team that we play in the playoff is going to be tough, especially with the players we have. We have very limited choices in terms of top 100 players in the world,” India’s Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali had told The Indian Express. Bhambri, the only Indian in the top 100 at the moment has been struggling to recover from the tendonitis issues to both knees that first flared up during the clay season. Ramkumar meanwhile has failed to use his recent Newport ATP final appearance as a launch pad for success. Prajnesh in turn, has been improving, but has not had much match practice against quality opposition. On the doubles front, Bopanna and Sharan are a strong team, but the tie will be decided by the singles.