The All India Tennis Association (AITA) has announced a virtually full-strength squad for the historic Davis Cup tie in Pakistan, their first in 55 years. For the four singles rubbers, they have named India’s highest-ranked players – Prajnesh Gunneswaran (90) and Ramkumar Ramanathan (184).
Saketh Myneni (271) has also been included as the third-highest ranked singles player Sumit Nagal (196) is unavailable for selection due to an ankle injury. Meanwhile, the doubles rubber will be played by the country’s top two specialists Rohan Bopanna (46) and Divij Sharan (47). World no. 292 Sasikumar Mukund has been named as a reserve player.
‘Straightforward’ and ‘full-strength’ is how team coach and selection committee member Zeeshan Ali described the squad named for the tie.
“The good news for us is that all our top players have come forward to play in this tie despite the security concerns they had initially,” Ali says. “The fact that all the players have agreed to go means that they’re satisfied with all the security arrangements the hosts and the ITF (International Tennis Federation) have assured.”
At stake in the upcoming September 14-15 tie is a spot in the World Group playoffs next year. India has reached that stage six consecutive times starting from the 2014 season. For a seventh shot at making it to the World Group, India, the clear favourites, will need to get the better of 39-year-olds Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Aqeel Khan. Ali, however, asserts that the tie can get tough for the visitors.
“They (Qureshi and Khan) will be playing at home, and they’ve done well at home to pull off wins in their last few ties,” Ali says. “Yes, they are 39, but in best-of-three-set matches, as opposed to best-of-five, it’s a bit more level. We’re to play on grass courts, which are quick and it takes just one break of serve to dictate the result of a set. So we definitely cannot take this lightly, which makes it important that we have a full squad.”
Ever since the ITF lifted the ban, that disallowed Pakistan hosting Davis Cup ties, in 2017, the Pakistan team has played five ties at home, winning four – including a walkover against Hong Kong.
In preparation for the trip to Pakistan, India’s non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi and Ali are yet to devise a plan for a possible training camp. Ever since Bhupathi took charge of the team in 2017, the team has held training camps ahead of each away tie to help the players acclimatise. This time around, though, a camp isn’t a certainty.
“The problem is that the tie will be close to the US Open which will end a week before the tie. So a lot depends on how far the players reach at the major, and then how quickly they can get back to New Delhi where we will assemble,” Ali explains. “Unfortunately, there are no direct flights to Pakistan, which means we will probably have to go to Dubai and then fly into Islamabad. It’s unfortunate, because it could have been maybe a one-hour flight, but now it becomes around 11 hours.”
Having the best Indian players available for the tie, though, does give the Indians an upper hand. Compared to the five Indians, Pakistan’s highest- ranked singles player is Ahmed Choudhary at 1,378, and the second-highest doubles player (Qureshi is the highest at 55) is M. Abid Ali Khan Akbar, ranked 1,588.
But this is no ‘regular tie’ for the Indians, as Ali describes it. “We needed to have the best team available because there will be other elements involved, given the nature of this draw.”
Iyer named manager
For the upcoming tie in Pakistan, the AITA has appointed a separate manager to accompany the team.
The role has been given to Sunder Iyer, executive committee member of the association, and secretary general of the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA) – the body that organises the Pune Challenger and India’s only ATP event, the Tata Open Maharashtra.
Iyer’s tasks will include dealing with the local authorities, handling logistics and the media.
“Earlier, I used to handle these things along with the coaching,” says Ali. “But this is not a regular tie. So it’s good that at least we will have someone to specialise in this.”