It might help to first accept that the Serbian third string is infinitely stronger than India’s top tier of singles players and that Novak Djokovic knew fully well he wouldn’t be needed to travel halfway across the globe to safeguard Serbia’s Davis Cup ambitions. That, their No. 4 and 5 would get the job done.
It might even help to acknowledge that on a bad day, Yuki Bhambri’s nerviness is so mind-numbingly infectious that it can even rub off on a dominant opponent like Dusan Lajovic, when the Serbian seemed too shy to serve out the set, and mirrored the Indian’s painful reticence in being not quite prepared to win, spraying errors in a cluster. The World No. 61 eventually finished with a blasting 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 scoreline but not before he sniffled a little, aping Bhambri’s inconsistency.
The 22-year-old Indian gave a few glimpses of what a good day might vaguely look like and Somdev Devvarman had one bright spot which fetched him the second set in a 1-6, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6 loss to Filip Krajinovic, but nothing which looked like it could stop the Serbians from going 2-0 up in the World Group playoff at the KSLTA courts.
Much has been made of Yuki Bhambri’s fragile physicality, his propensity to break down with an avalanche of injuries and his reluctance to run down balls owing to weaker legs as compared to the strong stomping muscled trunks of a Leander Paes or Somdev Devvarman. On Friday in the opener against Lajovic, Yuki’s spurting brilliance in constructing a handful of winners was drowned amidst his dismal tendency to repeatedly give into the temptation to run away from a leading position and stuff up every chance to wrest momentum.
Bhambri stacked up an unflattering heap of 59 unforced errors that pointed to mental fragility, a psychological breakdown and a reluctance to engage in a prolonged fight — all of which was much starker than the physical inadequacies of his game.
A zinger of a flat passing shot whizzed past Lajovic in the third game of the opening set on way to Bhambri breaking the Serb at 2-1, raising hopes of a contest that could have been even, had he kept up that pace and perfection. But the Indian almost seemed to be in disbelief of this unexpected advantage and threw in four straight errors to be broken right back in the next game.
Thereafter it was a recurring theme as he would play a stunning return, and promptly follow it with a clutch of inexplicable shots that would raise questions about both his big-match poise and tactical acumen. Lajovic with one of the most fetching single-handed backhands on the circuit, meanwhile, was unleashing some sizzling passing shots and one which was hit from midcourt and on the run. Yuki on the other hand was making the driver’s seat on Friday, look like a bed of cactus.
Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic put it succinctly while analysing the first singles: “They of course need to develop more strokes and improve tactically. But his level of mental energy is not as high as it should be. He plays at one flat tempo, and he can’t push up the gear when he starts playing well. He needs to use the energy to rise a notch above when he’s hitting the good spots,” he said.
At perhaps the lowest point of the day for India – one match and a set in the second singles down — the home side’s reserve player Jeevan Neduncheziyan acted upon a strange idea to wave a giant Indian flag their bench had brought to court. Amidst this pleading attempt to rouse a rather tepid crowd at the Cubbon Park, the flag came embarrassingly undone from its pole. The flag had come apart and India’s challenge was threatening to do so too.
It took the team’s physios and trainers to patch it up together and after some serious scrambling efforts, the emotive symbol of the home team’s challenge was handed to Rohan Bopanna for another round of flag-waving. It fired up a hitherto dull crowd, which had given a shy reluctant rendition of the national anthem at the start of the Davis Cup playoff tie, where little else except home support could be counted as a tangible advantage for the underdog Indians.
Hint of fightback
On the court, Somdev who had lost the first set 6-1 to Filip Krajinavic was patching up his own game together and bolstering his resolve to take the fight to the Serbs. A tad rusty to start with, the India No. 1 had been itching to piece the puzzle together, and make his wheeling, skidding, bouncing strong legs count. Sensing the collective crowd snooze, Somdev’s family — led by brother Aratrik, father and sister Poulomi — raised the decibel, and on the cue of ‘Come on Buji’, a reassuring pet-name, he launched a fightback in the second.
This included committing to the long testing rallies, matching Krajinavic on the baseline, using the top-spin to win himself some time by varying the pace and charging the net aggressively to break the mundane baseline pace that the Serbs were comfortable with. “I felt at that time that the momentum was switching my way. But I also missed 6-7 sitters. I was setting it up well, and then missing the darts,” Somdev rued of not being able to keep up, adding that both the Serbs had one thing in common. “They basically were not beating themselves, and that’s what Top 100 players do,” he said, highlighting the damage brought on by unforced errors. “My boys also served better and had a better return of serve. Tactically they were spot on, and played just what they needed to,” Bogdan said. The Indians failed at both the planning and miserably at the execution.
Results: Filip Krajinovic bt Somdev Devvarman 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2; Dusan Lajovic bt Yuki Bhambri 6-3, 6-2, 7-5
Day 2: Doubles 6:30pm live on DD