The pre-match ceremony was bound to be a bigger affair. You could tell in the way the AITA bigwigs obediently made their way to the VIP box on schedule. There were felicitations to be held. India’s exiting non-playing Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj was the first. But Leander Paes overshadowed all others.
India playing New Zealand in the first round Asia/Oceania Group 1 tie, that too on home turf – at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune – was a match-up made for the 43-year-old. His name was called with great gusto when introduced on court. Outside, T-shirts with ‘Leander Army’ were on sale.
Paes entered the tie gunning for the Davis Cup record of most doubles wins – he’s tied with Italian legend Nicola Pietrangeli on 42. And it was expected that New Zealand would give him that record-breaking win.
It would have helped clear a lot of things in terms of team selection for future ties.
The AITA itself had dropped hints that Paes’ selection was to help him achieve the record, after which they would look towards other options to play India’s future doubles rubbers in the Davis Cup. “It most probably will be his last,” AITA senior vice-president Bharat Oza had confirmed to the Indian Express two weeks earlier, kickstarting the intrigue.
The stage was set for Paes. Only he lost the match.
Partnering Vishnu Vardhan against New Zealand’s Michael Venus and Artem Sitak, the Indian duo lost 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 3-6.
A win for Paes, if the AITA is to be believed, would have seen him in his last doubles tie before his former partner Mahesh Bhupathi – with whom the veteran shared an acrimonious relationship in the past – steps in as non-playing captain. In the future, Rohan Bopanna, India’s highest-ranked doubles player, who is also sponsored by Bhupathi’s apparel company, would be expected to be the prime candidate for the doubles spot on the team.
Yet, Bopanna’s curious behaviour days before the ongoing tie may not go down well with the AITA in the future. Once Saketh Myneni dropped out due to a foot injury a day before the draw ceremony, the AITA made an SOS call to the 36-year-old to join the team and partner Paes in the doubles. But Bopanna allegedly refused.
Ranked 28th in the world, Bopanna had made clear his frustration at not being selected when the team was announced in December – especially since he was ranked higher.
“If you go by rankings, look at Yuki (Bhambri). He was ranked somewhere around 540 when we selected him. The best people for the job should be put there. You have to pick the team according to the surface, fitness and current form,” asserts Amritraj after the doubles rubber.
Paes adds: “Rankings don’t justify playing for the Davis Cup. People play those situations differently and some people crumble under that pressure, and some rise.”
The AITA, at the time, had justified their selection stating that a three-singles-one-doubles combination was desired for zonal matches. In turn, Myneni and Bopanna’s pairing was not deemed ideal for the tie given that the pair had lost the doubles rubber against New Zealand in 2015.
Meanwhile, the Myneni-Paes pairing, which had taken a set off Rio Olympics gold medallists Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez during the World Group Playoff last September, was rated as the best possible combination for the Pune tie.
An underlying reason was to allow Paes the chance to achieve the Davis Cup doubles record before selectors could look towards other players for future ties. But that would work only if the Indians won the doubles rubber to seal the tie that they were leading 2-0 coming into the match.
Ironically, it was Paes himself who proved to be the weak link in the team. There were rare moments of brilliance. Such as when he played a backhand drop with the softest of hands to seal advantage for his team in the first game of the third set. Yet, for all his skill and calibre, his performance was shockingly mediocre.
Even though his serve stayed relatively steady, it was his trademark net play and athleticism that was letting him down. In only the fourth game of the second set, saving a break point, Venus struck a volley that found Paes awkwardly positioned. Cramped for space, the veteran sprayed his shot wide. His serve was broken for the first time. Crucially, it started the downward slide in the match.
In fact, Vardhan – who had been recruited into the team hours before the draw ceremony on Thursday – was the one carrying the team forward. Though the Kiwis picked on him, he soaked up the pressure well. His big serve posed a threat to the visitors, as did his competent net play and groundstrokes.
Paes though, was not in touch.
There was a lot banking on the win. It was to give Paes the world record. More importantly, it was supposed to bring, or at least hint towards, a closure to the doubles selection saga that has dominated Indian tennis for years. With Bopanna rubbing AITA the wrong way, Bhupathi coming in, and Paes still searching for the record and looking in awful nick, plus no transparency in selection – with all the intrigue that goes on in Indian tennis – this conflict will carry forward into the next tie and beyond.
Indian doubles – once prided as a 1-0 advantage going into Davis Cup – looks like it’ll sink further into a quagmire, even as singles begins getting its act together. Pressure’s back on Yuki Bhambri and Ramkumar Ramanathan to not get swamped by this conundrum and clinch India the tie on Sunday.
Big serving Michael Venus will be New Zealand’s final throw of the dice. Then it’s back to untangling the doubles knots for the Indians.