A few surprises were in store, from the Indians as well as the Croatians, when the teams announced their final nominations for the Davis Cup World Group qualifier, which begins on Friday.
Ahead of the draw ceremony on Thursday, the Croatian team’s top doubles player, world no 10 Ivan Dodig was forced to withdraw due to a hand injury. But the hosts had an able replacement, in world no 32 Franko Skugor, who will team up with world no 10 Mate Pavic in the doubles rubber.
The duo will take on India’s doubles specialists Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes, who was picked over India’s no 2 Divij Sharan. Still, that was expected.
What was curious, however, was the team’s decision to overlook India’s highest-ranked singles player Sumit Nagal (127). Instead, on the opening day on Friday, India no 2 Prajnesh Gunneswaran (132) will start the tie with his singles match against Borna Gojo (277), while former world no 3 Marin Cilic will take on Ramkumar Ramanathan (182) in the second rubber. On Saturday, the doubles tie will be played before the reverse singles matches.
“Over the last week, both the coach Zeeshan Ali and I saw the players and also what was happening with the new court,” says Davis Cup non-playing captain Rohit Rajpal. “We felt that as a strategy, this would work out better for us because the court seems to have low bounce and the ball keeps moving. With the strength of our team, we felt this was the best combination to go with.”
The tactic, for the time being, did catch the Croatians off guard. “It may be a little unexpected that they (didn’t pick) Nagal, who is their top player,” said 2014 US Open champion Cilic, the biggest singles player competing in the tie. But all three of their singles players are solid, they are very similar in game. I have to make sure I (win) my two matches, and in other single matches we are (underdogs). But Borna will not be (under much pressure), he can play relaxed.”
Without the services of Croatia’s highest-ranked singles player, world no 33 Borna Coric, Gojo was selected for his second Davis Cup tie. The 22-year-old made his debut at the Davis Cup Finals last year, losing both his matches – albeit against then world no 23 Andrey Rublev and former world no 1 Rafael Nadal. Against the Indians, Gojo is expecting to pick up his first win in the competition.
“It will be easier for me now than the first time when I had a baptism of fire in Madrid,” Gojo says. “I opened the Davis Cup, and then immediately played with Nadal in the second match. But there is no pressure here.”
With Cilic expected to win both his singles matches, and the Indians favourites to win against Gojo, the tie will potentially be decided by the lone doubles rubber.
The six-man team that travelled to Croatia did consist of three doubles specialists, world no 37 and the country’s highest-ranked player Bopanna, India no 2 Divij Sharan (56) and no 5 Paes (115), who is currently on his farewell season. The 46-year-old Paes, though unsurprisingly, got the nod ahead of Sharan, who has played just two Davis Cup ties so far.
“We’re going with more experience this time. We always have a chance to change, but I’d prefer to go with experience at this point,” Rajpal adds.
This is the seventh time in as many years that India will aim at making it to the World Group of the competition. And with the way the two teams have lined up, there is a decent chance for an upset win over the two-time champions.
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