The sound of tennis racquet meeting ball is always louder in an indoor hall. Exaggerated as it may be, it can tell you who is hitting the shots more cleanly, and with more venom. On Saturday, Day 2 of the Davis Cup World Group Playoff, the Serbians were the ones reaping the rewards from their measured thumps across the net. Victory for Serbia in the doubles rubber was never on the cards.
At best, the pair of Nikola Milojevic and debutant Danilo Petrovic was a scratch team non-playing captain Nenad Zimonjic fielded in the absence of the bigger names in Serbian tennis. Rankings are one thing – Milojevic is 193 and Petrovic is 233 in singles – the pair has experience in the Davis Cup of just one solitary rubber between them. There is no conceivable explanation that would render their 7-6(5), 6-2, 7-6(4) win over the Indians in the doubles match as anything other than an upset. A shock win that secured the tie for Serbia with a 3-0 scoreline.
At the beginning of the tie, the doubles rubber – as has now become an Indian tradition – was the match that the travelling team was expected to win. In the squad there was Rohan Bopanna, the world no 30 in doubles who is the only player in the entire tie to have won a Grand Slam (Mixed Doubles at the French Open in 2017). Slated to play along with him was N Sriram Balaji, an athletic player slowly making his way up the doubles ladder. Only, Balaji was replaced last minute, curiously, with the injury plagued Saketh Myneni.
“The captain thought Myneni would be a much better fit to this tie,” AITA secretary general Hironmoy Chatterjee told The Indian Express. “There was no injury problem for Balaji.” No doubt, in his time Myneni has been an impressive player, especially with that big serve that is oh so adored in Indian tennis folklore. But the 30-year-old has had problems with fitness, all dating back to another Davis Cup tie in February last year. Myneni limped out of the zonal tie against New Zealand in Pune last year, was forced to miss out of the tour for months thereafter. His name appeared briefly and unexpectedly for the playoff against Canada last year, but he was deemed unfit by skipper Mahesh Bhupathi.
A year later, at this stage of the tournament, Myneni did return to the Davis Cup fold. But his pairing with Bopanna, himself a victim of injury in the recent past, was not a combination that worked well against two hard-hitting minnows. Court coverage, with two players standing at an even 6-foot-4 each, should not have been an issue, but for the speed in their legs and control in their hands letting them down at crucial junctures of the game. Myneni was clearly short of match sharpness. He’s played eight tournaments so far this year, albeit beating the once world no 8 Mikhail Youzhny (who is retiring at the end of the season). At the net, the world no 222 was rusty, failing to clear the net on multiple occasions.
The most crucial perhaps was his fluffed volley that handed the hosts the mini-break at 5-4 in the first set tiebreaker. That was the set that could have demoralized the optimistic Serbian duo had the Indians won it. Instead, the Milojevic and Petrovic began playing with inspired vigour and broke both Myneni and Bopanna to help themselves to the second set. On the night, the young and inexperienced European side played their cards well. In the first set their service games went almost unblemished – they lost only four points in six service games, and a total of five at the end of the set. In the second set they dropped another four points on their serve. Standing at a massive 6-foot-8, Petrovic’s was the only player to have remained unbroken through the duration of the two-hours-12-minute match. Meanwhile Bopanna, who has been praised time and again for his booming serve, was broken twice.
The 38-year-old veteran had suffered from a shoulder injury that forced him to withdraw from his second round match at Wimbledon. Arguably, he rushed his return to play and win the men’s doubles gold at the Asian Games against a lower quality field. He was the one expected to grasp the doubles rubber against the Serbians, especially with the Indians already trailing 2-0 from the opening day.
But his hard strokes and big serve didn’t work on the slow clay court of the Kraljevo Sports Venue. And it gave the energetic opponents enough time to retrieve. All through the match, the Serbs targeted Myneni with cleanly struck groundstrokes. The match ended with Myneni hitting a tame backhand into the net. Bhupathi’s decision to field Myneni ahead of Balaji was curious. The 28-year-old, who had paired up well with Bopanna for the zonal tie against Uzbekistan last year had broken into the top 100 not too far back. He even had a chance to play the towering Petrovic in the final of the Chennai Challenger earlier this year. With the tie secured for Serbia, the overall result however, doesn’t make much difference for India’s participation in the playoffs in February, when the new format of the Davis Cup kicks-in. India however, loses the chance to have a high seeding for that sixth consecutive shot at the World Group.