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Friday, October 22, 2021

Davis Cup: After loss to Finland, India look for larger pool of players

"We need to look at the next bunch of guys", said captain Rohit Rajpal after India lost the Davis Cup World Group 1 tie to Finland 3-1. "At 41, the younger guys are not pushing Rohan Bopanna."

Written by Shahid Judge |
Updated: September 19, 2021 8:02:59 am
Ramkumar Ramanathan and Rohan Bopanna in action. (Twitter/tennisfi)

Jarkko Nieminen, a former World No 13 in singles, leapt off his chair to celebrate with his doubles team of Henri Kontinen, a former World No 1, and Harri Heliovaara, the current No 76. Finland had just beaten India 7-6(2), 7-6(2) in the doubles rubber of the World Group 1 tie in Espoo. And with the two singles wins from Friday, the Finns had secured a Finals Playoffs spot for the first time since 2002.

By the end of play on Saturday, Finland had recorded a 3-1 win over India – Prajnesh Gunneswaran picked up the consolation point by winning the dead fourth rubber 6-3, 7-5 against World No 491 Patrik Niklas-Salminen.

While the Finns stand the chance of making the top tier of the competition, the Indians now face the danger of falling a rung further below. Their next tie will be in the Group 1 playoffs in 2022.

Key to Finland’s win this weekend were the 20-year-old Otto Virtanen and 22-year-old Emil Ruusuvuori – who, ranked 74, was the highest-ranked singles player in the tie. Even their doubles team is aged 32 and 31, Heliovaara being the older player. And that was central to Nieminen’s optimistic view about the future of Finnish tennis.

“Our singles players are young and improving every time we play,” said the Finland captain after the tie. “We are stronger as a team. In theory, we can beat anybody on our day. We are getting closer (to the Davis Cup Finals). None of our players has played their best yet.”

This was never going to be an easy tie for the Indians on an indoor court temporarily laid over an ice hockey rink in the Espoo Metro Areena. But it was not expected to have been that easy for the Finns either.

Prajnesh was well expected to beat World No 419 Virtanen in the opening rubber, and a win there would have piled on some pressure on Ruusuvuori in the second match against Ramkumar Ramanathan. But the lower-ranked player came up with an upset straight-sets win over the Indian ranked 165, setting the tone for the Finnish win.

“We lost momentum in the first match. We were hoping to get the first one and take it from there. it would have been a different scenario if we won that, but it held us back,” explained India captain Rohit Rajpal.

Ramkumar lost 6-4, 7-5 to Ruusuvuori, making it 2-0 to the hosts after the first day.

The Indians then switched Divij Sharan with Ramkumar to team up with Rohan Bopanna for the doubles match. The logic to give the Chennai-lad his first Davis Cup doubles match was his big-serving ability that could work well on the slow, low-bouncing court.

“We knew Ram and I were the right team to choose for this tie,” said doubles World No 44 Rohan Bopanna. “We had chances and it could easily have gone to three sets.”

India will now have to compete in the World Group 1 Playoffs next year – a loss there will take them into the lower Group 2 for the first time since the format was introduced in 1983.

“We need to have a larger pool of players to pick from,” Rajpal said. “To go forward we need to go back to the drawing board. Even in doubles, I was talking to Rohan, at 41, the younger guys are not pushing him. We need to look at the next bunch of guys. We need to have better players, better strategies.”

The best-of-five matches format is such that just having a strong doubles team will not win the round.

“The focus has to be getting the singles wins, doubles is a part of it,” Bopanna added. “If you’re not winning (singles) matches, that’s where we are going to be, unfortunately.”

The last time an Indian won a singles match in Davis Cup against a higher-ranked player was when 164-ranked Somdev Devvarman beat then-No 40 Jiri Vesely of the Czech Republic in 2015. Now the team is at the risk of falling into a lower division.

Playoffs hopes thwarted, fight now to stay in second-tier

After the 3-1 defeat to Finland in the World Group 1 Davis Cup tie, India has failed to reach the Finals Playoffs (formerly called the World Group Playoffs) for the first time since 2013. The team will now have to play another tie, which will take place next year, to stay in the Group 1 (the second tier in Davis Cup). The Group 1 Playoffs will take place between all the teams like India that lost the Group 1 ties, and the teams that won their ties in the lower division Group 2. The draws for the Group 1 playoffs will only be established after the last set of matches, scheduled for November, are over.

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