India may be much below Italy in rankings, but their non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi Wednesday said his players will not be intimidated by their European opponents in the Davis Cup Qualifiers in Kolkata next month.
Keeping in mind Italians’ weakness on grass, India have opted for grass courts in South Club here for the February 1-2 fixtures which will be played in new format with the winners making a cut to the 18-nation finals in Madrid next year.
“Nothing can be taken for granted. We are underdogs but my boys will not be intimidated. I feel we have a better chance,” Bupathi told reporters on the sidelines of the first practice session of the team at the Calcutta Gymkhana Club.
“I think my boys are experienced enough that when Davis Cup comes into play ranking is not really a factor. They have all played at the highest level now, both Ramkumar (Ramantahan) and Prajnesh (Gunneswaran) have played Grand Slams and Tour events,” the 44-year-old the multiple Grand Slam champion in doubles said.
Talking about his personal experience as a Davis Cup player, he said, “When I was playing Davis Cup, if I played a top ranked player, it was different for me because I was always competing at the challenger level.
“But with these guys, I don’t think ranking plays a factor. I think they actually truly believe that they are capable of beating them (the opposition) if they play well.”
Bhupathi spoke highly of India number one and world ranked 109 Prajnesh Gunneswaran who has improved 200 ranking places in two years, while he termed world number 131 Ramkumar Ramanathan as “super dangerous”.
“Prajnesh qualified for his first Grand Slam (Australian Open) so he’s on an all time high, confidence wise. He’s had an amazing breakthrough year last year. He’s a late bloomer because of injury but he’s definitely brimming with confidence.”
The 23-year-old Ramkumar finished runner-up in his first final on the ATP World Tour in Newport, Rhode Island, in June last year.
“On these courts, Ram is going to be super dangerous. We all saw what he did in Newport last year, he made the final and he should have won the title. So we’re positive,” Bhupathi said.
Bhupathi said having a quality left-hander in Prajnesh makes a big difference.
“It’s definitely an advantage to have a quality left-hander on your team. We’ve never had that ever as far as I can remember. Two years ago when we brought him in, there was a strategic reason for that. It wasn’t because at that time he was ranked 350, but we wanted a lefty and it worked for us,” he said.
Italy will be without their top player Fabio Fognini but they still have two players in top 50 — Marco Cecchinato (18) and Andreas Seppi (35) — along with Matteo Berrettini (54), Thomas Fabbiano (102), doubles world number 88 Simone Bolelli.
But Fognini’s absence will not make it any easier for India, Bhupathi said.
“They got two guys in the top 50, so I don’t think the equation changes for us. We don’t have one guy in the top 100.”
Asked about the shortened format, Bhupathi said: “Better or worse, I don’t know it’s better for India. When you’re trying to upset a team like Italy, obviously beating them in two sets versus three sets is easier asked for me, for my boys.
“In general sports around the world is trying to get shorter for TV. In the Australian Open, there’s a super tiebreaker in the men’s singles now, Wimbledon is changing. So yeah, I think everyone will learn to live with it. And it’s the way forward in sport.”
India have beaten Italy only once in five Davis Cup ties, and that happened at the very same South Club courts in Kolkata back in 1985.
Asked if India are the favourites to beat the Italians on grass, he said: “If it was that simple, then the Italians wouldn’t have shown up. They would have stayed back at home.”
Bhupathi is yet to see the South Club courts but coach Zeeshan Ali went there in the morning.
“He (Zeeshan) is really happy, he likes what he saw. It’s still a long way to go, we only get practice there Monday onwards.
“Personally I’m very excited. I made my debut in Calcutta. I played a lot of ties here. That time grass was the choice. Obviously there’s a lot of tradition of tennis here,” he signed off.
India coach Zeeshan predicts tough challenge vs Italy
Indians haven’t played on grass in more than six months and the hosts would find it difficult when they face Italy in next month’s Davis Cup Qualifiers at the South Club grasscourts, said coach Zeeshan Ali. Keeping in mind the weakness of the Italians on grass, India have opted for grasscourts in South Club for the February 1-2 fixtures which will be played in a new format in the transformed Davis Cup with the winners making a cut to the 18-nation finals in Madrid next year.
“It won’t be easy for our players also. We haven’t played in grass for a long time,” Ali said as the Indians led by non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi sweated it out for more than three hours at the Calcutta Gymkhana Club.
Italy have named their squad minus the top-ranked Fabio Fognini. World number 18 Marco Cecchinato, who had shocked Novak Djokovic en route to his 2018 French Open semifinals, will be their top player. They will also have Andreas Seppi (35) along with Matteo Berrettini (54), Thomas Fabbiano (102), doubles world number 88 Simone Bolelli.
“They have other quality players as well so I don’t think not having Fognini will make a huge difference,” Ali said. The main venue will not be available till Sunday as India will get used to the grasscourts here before they get four practice days’ time at the South Club.