AT 4-4 in the second set, Jiri Vesely took a step back deep behind the baseline and stood in the shade. He looked across the net to see a beaming Somdev Devvarman already taking his position to receive the serve. The 30-year-old Indian wasn’t his only opponent. Vesely, ranked 40th, glanced skywards and stared at the sun beating down on the centre court of the RK Khanna Stadium.
Moments ago, Vesely came this close to breaking Somdev and taking a 5-3 lead in the second set. Having lost the first, a break of serve at that juncture could’ve shifted the momentum in his favour.
But Somdev saved the break point and then, the duo played out five deuce points where neither looked like giving up. Until a visibly drained Vesely did. The big-serving Czech did not have the legs to chase a deep forehand hit by Somdev as he simply stood there, watching the ball whiz past him. Somdev held on to his serve and would break Vesely immediately to pinch the second set and all but seal the second singles rubber.
India go into Saturday’s doubles rubber tied 1-1 after the two singles matches. Yuki Bhambri lost cheaply to hard-hitting Lukas Rosol 6-2 6-1 7-5 before Somdev shocked Czech No.1 Vesely, ranked nearly 100 places above him, 7-6(3), 6-4, 6-3 to keep India’s hopes alive in a tie where they were projected as heavy underdogs.
And as much as the players, one can imagine All India Tennis Association (AITA) bosses patting each other’s backs When India were drawn with Czech Republic in the World Group playoff tie, the AITA chose Delhi as the host keeping two key elements in mind: weather and the court conditions. These, eventually, were the deciding factors.
Fitness was always going to be crucial in this tie, with the matches being scheduled at noon. And it did not take long for the Czech’s to experience the enormity of the challenge to play five-set matches in Delhi heat. They wilted in the sweltering heat and humidity as they ran out of steam. While Rosol crossed the line just before the conditions could impact him, Vesely – who was also battling an injury – could hardly indulge in a rally, looking completely sapped half-way through the first set.
To combat the challenge posed by the humid conditions, the visitors came with one game-plan – serve big and keep the rallies short. Rosol executed the plan to perfection. He hit 11 aces and 50 winners. Yuki looked lost, overwhelmed by the powerful shots unleashed by the World No.85, who is regarded as one of the biggest and cleanest hitters on the tour.
The first two sets were wrapped up inside an hour and by the time Yuki could figure out his opponent’s game, it was too late. Rosol looked like he was tiring mid-way through the third set, but had enough in his reserves to clinch the rubber. “I could see he was tiring. If I could have won the third set, things could have been very different,” Yuki later reflected.
Vesely too tried the same trick as his compatriot but the conditions by then had worsened. He did not seem interested in indulging in baseline slugfest.
He tried too hard to make things happen and in the desperation to close points out quickly, he committed far too many errors. Sensing that his opponent was struggling in the conditions and was also bothered by his injury, Somdev went for the kill. He committed few errors and served well (20 aces). By the time they began the third set, Vesely was panting. The Czech players downplayed weather conditions. “It was hot but better than what it has been earlier in the week. Still, I am happy I finished the match in three sets,” Rosol said.
Somdev, however, acknowledged the role played by the conditions in keeping India alive in this tie. “Of course it’s a huge factor. When we chose Delhi as a venue, we knew the humidity factor would come into play. It was a conscious decision we took. Also the courts here at slower, which do not suit the Czech players who are big-servers and hit the ball hard,” Somdev said.
The 164-ranked Indian soaked himself in the pool for 20 minutes after the encounter. Vesely, who was too tired to even walk of the court, too spent the same time cooling himself down. It was the only time he had smiled since morning.
Perhaps also relieved that he’ll be out on court early on Sunday for the reverse singles, thus avoiding the afternoon heat.
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