It had been five years since India lost a zonal Davis Cup tie. That time they had fielded a below-par squad to play Korea. On Friday evening, a similar result might have been looming large ahead for the travelling Indians. At the end of the first day, they were already down 2-0 against hosts China after the higher ranked Ramkumar Ramanathan and Sumit Nagal blanked against the home team’s singles players at the Tinajin Tennis Center for the second round zonal tie.
Back at the hotel though, veteran Leander Paes recalls a ‘unique situation’ arising. The team’s fifth member, Prajnesh Gunneswaran, who was not nominated to play any matches at the draw ceremony on Thursday, had an idea. “Prajnesh came up to myself and Zeeshan Ali (coach) and said that he’d really love to have an opportunity to play,” Paes explains. “He brought it up himself, and then went and spoke to the captain (Mahesh Bhupathi) about it. Normally you see so many individuals wanting to play when we’re winning, but not quite the other way around.”
The tie was still alive, but India would need to win the doubles and reverse singles to ensure the win. Nagal was expected to play Chinese teenager Yibing Wu in the fifth rubber, but Bhupathi, now sitting in as captain in his third Davis Cup tie, had come to a decision. “After seeing the Wu play on day one, I didn’t think Sumit’s game would match up well to him,” Bhupathi says. “Prajnesh has been looking good in practice and was hungry to play, so I took a punt.”
It was a change that proved to be a masterstroke. India did manage to win the doubles and the first singles on Saturday to level up at 2-2, allowing the 28-year-old a live rubber to play in. And as the match went on, the southpaw kept up the intensity in his explosive groundstrokes to outmuscle Wu 6-4, 6-2, and earn his team a fifth consecutive spot in the World Group Playoff.
“He didn’t give many unforced errors, he kept the ball in play and waited for his shots, and he served well,” says former Davis Cup captain Anand Amritraj. “This was probably the best ever I’ve seen him play. And the first time playing in the deciding match, it’s absolutely huge.”
Playing in only his second Davis Cup tie, who at world no 263 was the lowest ranked Indian in the squad of five, was composed despite the occasion. He started piling on the pressure on his 18-year-old opponent early in the match, finding a break in Wu’s second and third service games to race to a 5-2 lead.
Prajnesh was even more assertive in the second set, racing to a commanding 4-0 lead. His own service game held true, hitting seven aces, while Wu conceded five double faults in a match that lasted just 64 minutes. Yet in all that time, the Chennai-lad does claim to have been under some stress. “There was a lot riding on this match,” he says. “There was a lot of pressure, but then it was there for both players. I just had to keep myself there mentally, because it was all about who handles it better.”
While Prajnesh’s quality and composure was key in him winning the crucial fifth rubber for India, securing a 4-0 head-to-head record against China, Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna paired up to start the day with a tense 5-7, 7-6, 7-6 win over Mao-Xin Gong and Zhang Ze. The veteran Indian duo began the match well, picking up an early break and going up to a 4-1 lead, before Paes’ serve was broken twice to concede the set. Their vast experience over their opponents though served them well in the two tie-breakers that followed. But there were still some tense moments for the Indians before that. With Paes serving on 5-6, and 0-30, the Chinese were just two points away from sealing the tie. The 44-year-old then forced Zhang to hit long and then placed a strong service-winner to level the game. He then followed it up with two comfortable serve-volley combos, game-point coming courtesy a Bopanna volley. “There were so many ups and downs,” says SP Misra, former Davis Cup captain and current AITA selection committee chairman. “But both are very experienced and good players, and that made a difference in the tie-breakers.”
If Bhupathi’s decision to field Prajnesh was a crucial, another key moment was China’s captain Wei Jiang picking hard-hitting Zhang to play the doubles rubber – a move that had worked well when the Chinese hosted New Zealand in the first round zonal tie in February.
On Saturday though, the move meant that Di Wu had to play Ramkumar, who had recovered from his surprise loss against Yibing the previous day. The fourth rubber though was another scrappy affair, the first set being decided in a tie-breaker after both players broke serve twice each. In the second set, the world no 132 managed to break Di’s serve once more than the two times he himself was broken, ending the match with a 7-6, 6-3 win.
Then came time for the Prajnesh show. The last time India came back to win a tie after going 2-0 down was when they hosted Brazil in the heat of Chennai in 2010. They’ve managed to do it again, this time, in the cold of Tianjin.