There are a few ways to describe Ramkumar Ramanathan. He’s a talented player – with a big forehand and even bigger serve – and arguably the fittest Indian player of his generation. He’s also a maverick. A risk taker who doesn’t adhere to textbook tactics. On a clay court in Serbia, the 23-year-old chose to approach the net, play serve and volley or chip and charge even when the more advisable option is to hold ground at the baseline. That too against an opponent who had the legs to retrieve.
It was a bizarre tactic. But sometimes when an idea is so crazy, it just might be that tool you need to topple higher ranked opponents.
Ramkumar certainly went for it, stuck to a strategy that has helped him in recent times against opponents ranked around the 100 range. But world No. 86 Laslo Djere regularly competes against the top guns in tennis and the Serb often had an answer to the onrushing Indian.
That meant that despite a brave, seemingly wacky, attempt by Ramkumar, it was Serbia who drew first blood in the Davis Cup World Group Playoff tie against the travelling Indians 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(2), 6-2. The Indian team’s tryst with Serbia continues in the Davis Cup this year. Back in 2011, the Europeans cut short India’s entry into the World Group by beating them in the first round. This was followed by a loss to Japan in the playoffs and the Indians haven’t been able to break into the game’s elite 16 since. In 2014, India had a chance to get back to the World Group, but were thwarted again by Serbia, this time in the playoffs in Bangalore. Now as the country has reached the Playoff stage for the fifth consecutive time, a second-string Serbia stands in the way. Novak Djokovic, the 14-time Grand Slam champion, and the talented but injury plagued Filip Krajinovic elected to skip the tie. But in Djere and Dusan Lazovic (56), the hosts have sufficient firepower in singles.
It would take steely resilience and the audacity to get past two players groomed on clay courts. Ramkumar, for all his flaws – and a missing backhand – gave his all. The Chennai lad’s work rate was unquestionable, as he ran down whatever Djere powerfully drove down the clay court. And the first set went the Indian’s way. Surely, it did help that in the fifth game the 23-year-old Serb rolled his ankle when his foot got caught in a mid-slide. With a gash on his knee and hurt right foot, his movement had slowed down. Ramkumar helped himself to a break in the next game.
Going a set up would undoubtedly have given India’s highest ranked singles player in the tie, at 135, a shot in the arm. But that confidence unwittingly came with a false sense of security in the attacking game he had been playing. In the second set, Djere’s running had improved significantly. He had started to chase down the Indian’s volleys, and had even started playing some immaculate passing shots and low dipping returns that made it difficult for Ramkumar to get the ball over the net. Serving at 1-0 in the third set tiebreaker, Djere hit a low backhand return. Had Ramkumar stayed at the baseline, he could have met the ball at a decent height, comfortable enough for him to unleash another of his fabled forehand drives. Instead he stretched forward to meet the ball on the volley and went no further than the net. In the very next point, he sprinted up to the net only for Djere to play an accurate passing backhand down the line. The serve and volley style that had only months ago helped Ramkumar become the first Indian to reach the final of an ATP event in seven years – on the low-bouncing grass courts of Newport – did work for him on the indoor clay of Kraljevo.
By the end of the match he finished with a tally of 12 net points won in 38 attempts. Crucially, his service game was not upto scratch, as he’d register a low 57 percent first serves in with four double faults – the second of which came when he was down a set point in the second set. By no means was playing Serbia in away conditions going to be an easy outing for the Indians. But Ramkumar did play with valour. He did not hold back on his shots, and even walked up during Djere’s second service motion to meet the ball early. He held up for as much as he could against an opponent ranked 49 places ahead of him. But defeat was still on the cards. It was the first strike on the first day for Serbia. Gunneswaran loses to Lajovic
The hero of the tie against China in April, Prajnesh Gunneswaran fell 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 to Serbia’s top ranked player Dusan Lajovic in the second rubber of the World Group Playoff tie in Kraljevo. In a scrappy error prone match, the 28-year-old committed 64 unforced errors against Lajovic’s 49. The straight-sets victory, which came in just under two hours, now puts Serbia at a 2-0 advantage at the end of the first day of the tie.