If India’s upcoming Davis Cup tie against Finland is to be a tough task, the draw on Thursday came out in favour of the visitors. This is the first time India will play in the World Group 1, after the format was changed in 2020. In the previous structure, India would play in the Asia/Oceania Group, where they’ve bossed for the past seven years. But in their first ever tie against Finland, the Indians come up against a team that will field higher ranked players.
There is the 22-year-old Emil Ruusuvuori – who has beaten the likes of Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev – who is the highest ranked singles player in the tie, 74. Their doubles team consists of World No 76 (in doubles) Harri Heliovaara and former No 1 Henri Kontinen (currently 46), who won the 2016 Wimbledon mixed doubles and 2017 Australian Open men’s doubles title. Their weakest link on paper is 20-year-old Otto Virtanen, ranked 419.
Crucially for the Indians, the opening rubber will see its No 1 player Prajnesh Gunneswaran (165) come up against Virtanen.
“We are happy that (Prjanesh) plays first. If he plays to potential and performs, then we should go up 1-0, and the pressure will be on (Ruusuvuori) to beat Ramkumar (Ramanathan),” says India team captain Rohit Rajpal.
“Ram is a very versatile player. We are preparing him well for this match.”
Ramkumar, India’s third highest ranked singles player at 187, will play the second rubber on Friday against the Finnish spearhead.
On Saturday, the tie will resume with the sole doubles rubber. India No 1 and 2 Rohan Bopanna (44) and Divij Sharan (86) respectively will play Kontinen and Heliovaara, followed by the reverse singles matches – Ruusuvuori-Prajnesh and Virtanen-Ramkumar as the final match.
The ‘luck’ element from the draw for the visitors at the Espoo Metro Areena, is that Finland’s main singles player will play in the second and fourth rubbers. As Rajpal claims, Prajnesh will be the favourite to pick up the win against Virtanen to add pressure on Ruusuvuori.
Furthermore, on Saturday, should the tie be levelled at 2-2 and go into the deciding rubber, it’ll be the unfancied Virtanen who will come up against the 26-year-old Ramkumar, who travelled to Espoo fresh after reaching the quarterfinals of a Challenger in France, beating former World No 10 Ernests Gulbis en route.
Prajnesh however, who had reached a career high of 75 and is the only currently active Indian singles player to have broken into the top 100, has been suffering from recurring wrist injuries this year. Should he not be fit for the fourth rubber in the best-of-five match tie, he will be replaced by the lowest ranked singles player in the tie, World No 573 Saketh Myneni, whose last competitive match was at a Futures event in March.
Yet there is confidence regarding Prajnesh’s current fitness.
“He’s been hitting the ball very well and there’s no sign of any injury,” says team coach Zeeshan Ali.
“There was a scare a few weeks back when he told me his wrist had been bothering him. He went back to Chennai to get some rehab done. But coming here, he’s been hitting the ball well, he’s moving well. The court also seems to be suiting him with the speed and everything. This is the best I have seen him play.” The aim will be to target the two singles rubbers against Virtanen and the doubles match to gain the required three points to win the tie. At an indoor venue that was originally designed for ice hockey, against a tricky opponent, India hopes to make it to an eight consecutive playoff.