N Sriram Balaji seemed to have anticipated the serve. In the sixth game of the second set, Farrukh Dustov went for a wide serve – out on India’s ad-court side. A backhand might have been ideal choice, but he was ready, confident enough to take a big step to his left, taking the ball on his forehand, and clobbering a flat return winner down the line.
He pulled off something similar a set later. Already leading 3-0, and on break point, the Indian got another wide serve from Dustov. This time he attempted a backhand return, connected sweetly, and unleashed a powerful topspin crosscourt winner.
While serve had been India’s go-to weapon in the doubles rubber of the Asia/Oceania Group 1 Davis Cup tie against Uzbekistan, Balaji’s two returns spoke of the confidence of the debutant on the night.
He combined with Rohan Bopanna to score a dominating 6-2, 6-4, 6-1 win, which sealed the tie for India a day after Ramkumar Ramanathan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran had won the opening singles rubbers.
Heading into the tie, team captain Mahesh Bhupathi had been forcing Balaji to work for hours on his returns during practice sessions that started on Sunday. And on the night that the 27-year-old was to play his first ever Davis Cup match, he was ready. “Mahesh wanted me to step in on the returns and hit it,” says Balaji. “He wanted me to keep moving all the time and focus on the returns. And Rohan was also pushing me on court.”
At the KSLTA Stadium in Bangalore, Balaji did just that, as he found a flow to his return game, standing up and striking the ball confidently with clean groundstrokes rather than merely putting the ball into play. For a debutant, there was no trace of any nerves.
In the end, the win secured for India a berth in the World Group Playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
As much as his returns needed help during the practice sessions, Balaji’s service game was flawless. The six-footer boasts a powerful serve, which Bhupathi deemed an asset when he made his team selection, especially since the high altitude at Bangalore provides higher bounce and greater ball speed off the surface.
In the second set, at 3-3 (the game following his forehand winner), the Uzbek pair of Dustov and Sanjar Fayziev were keeping pace. At 30-15, Balaji served wide a 208 kmph ace. He followed it up with one clocking 209, which Dustov got a feeble return on, and Bopanna killed off at the net. The 37-year-old too was raining down serves that broke the Uzbek will. The Indians served 16 aces, didn’t face a single break point and dropped only three points on their serve in the last two sets.
But the rubber was all about Balaji. He was the fulcrum in Bhupathi’s three-singles-one-doubles strategy, as he is the only player in the Indian team that is versatile enough to play both singles and doubles.
Bopanna served for the match in the third set. The score at 40-0, India had a second match point. The veteran served out wide, 198 kmph this time, but Fayziev got a decent connection to it. Balaji was at hand, at the net. He took a step forward, and killed off the match with a backhand volley.