Day 3 was a formality. India had already lost the Davis Cup World Group Playoff tie the previous day to hosts Serbia, who carried an unassailable 3-0 lead heading into Sunday. Pride was all that could have been achieved in the fourth dead rubber, as both teams fielded their respective fifth players for a run about – Serbia’s Pedja Krstin won 6-3, 6-1 against N Sriram Balaji. There was no fifth match. The final reading of the scoreline was Serbia 4, India naught.
Playing Serbia in Serbia was never going to be an easy task despite the hosts putting up a second-string side. But the question the Indians will, and probably should, ask themselves on Sunday is could they have ensured the final day of the tie was much more than just a mere formality? Yes, they probably could have, and perhaps, should have.
Granted, Serbia was led by two top 100 players, world no 56 Dusan Lajovic and Laslo Djere (ranked 86), and that India suffered a setback a week before the tie with injuries ruling out ace singles player Yuki Bhambri and doubles specialist Divij Sharan, there was still enough firepower in the traveling quintet.
Spearheading the Indian attack was Ramkumar Ramanathan, a talented 23-year-old ranked 135. In recent times, the Chennai lad has beaten then world no 8 Dominic Thiem, and recently became the first Indian in seven years to reach the final of an ATP event.
He started the tie, playing Djere in the first rubber, and even took the opening set. The youngster brought to the Kraljevo Sports Venue an unusual tactic for a clay court, playing serve and volley and chip and charge at every possible chance. He’d go for it even on half-chances. It worked for a few shots, till Djere started to find the range in his passing efforts.
Worse still was that Ramkumar’s big serve wasn’t on cue. When he needed it most, serving at 4-5 and facing a break point, he double faulted. He barely hung on in the third, losing in the tiebreak. But by the fourth set, he was a spent force, conceding it 6-2. “Ramkumar should have won, but he didn’t take the crucial points,” explains AITA selection committee chairman and former Davis Cup captain SP Misra. “He managed to take the third set into a tiebreak and then just faded. We all know he can play the big matches, but it’s high time he starts performing well more often.”
Up next was the hard-hitting southpaw Prajnesh Gunneswaran’s match against Lajovic. The 28-year-old, by all accounts, has had a pretty decent year so far. In India’s last Davis Cup outing, a zonal tie in China, the world no 162 played and won a high-pressure deciding rubber against Chinese wonderkid Yibing Wu. Weeks later, on clay, he won his career’s biggest title, the USD 150,000 Anning Challenger. Then in June, he beat Canadian sensation and world no 23 Denis Shapovalov.
But on the night he had to face Serbia’s third best player, he simply couldn’t find any rhythm. In a best of five set match that ended in just under two hours, Prajnesh struck 15 winners against an unflattering 64 unforced errors.
Already down 2-0 on an opening day the Indians had hoped to end with at least one win, the doubles match was the last resort for a comeback. And it was a good option too. In fact, India were the favourites to win the doubles.
Serbia’s skipper Nenad Zimonjic fielded debutant Danilo Petrovic and Nikola Milojevic, who previously played only one Davis Cup match. In the other corner was veteran Rohan Bopanna, ranked 30 in doubles, and surprisingly, not Balaji but Saketh Myneni.
The injury ravaged 30-year-old was once ranked as high as 113 in doubles but has since dropped down to 222 after missing a significant amount of time on the tour. Coming to the tie, he hadn’t played a competitive match for over a month and has participated in only eight events so far this year. “Saketh had played out of his skin during the practice sessions and was hitting the ball really well,” Misra explains. “The way he performed, we simply had to select him. But I have no idea what happened to him when the match started.”
Myneni seemed to lack match sharpness, as his volleys found the net more often than it went over. His groundstrokes too wavered, and he didn’t move quick enough to return the hard-hitting shots from the inexperienced Serbians. At the same time his big serving partner, who was the only Grand Slam winner present in the tie, was inconsistent and for all his experience and brilliance in the past, could not take charge of the match. Bopanna, 38, is still a renowned player on the tour. But that’s where he gets to choose partners of high stature that can help carry him through, and build a steady rapport.
“For Davis Cup, they come together once for a week and that’s all the time they get,” says former Davis Cup captain Jaidip Mukherjea. “Rohan has achieved a lot in his career, but now might be the time for the selectors to take a bold step and pick a fresh side. There are other good players ranked in the top 100. And in Balaji and Vishnu (Vardhan), you have a team that already competes together on the circuit.”
Perhaps too much was at stake in that doubles match, for a win in at least one singles rubber was hoped for. Given how it panned out, it was achievable too. In five consecutive playoffs, India hasn’t managed to go through. With the new Davis Cup format coming into play next year, a sixth chance is secured in February.