On Friday, for the first time at the ongoing Fed Cup ties in Delhi, the hosts were the better team. Which isn’t saying much, since opponents Hong Kong (the team with the worst combined ranking) didn’t set the bar too high to begin with. The consolatory 3-0 win, thus, should be put into context.
The good news is that India will take on Chinese Taipei, who finished fourth in Pool B, in Saturday’s Asia/Oceania Group 1 relegation playoff. The bad news is that there were enough frailties on display for the team to harbour hopes of moving up to the World Group anytime soon.
While she finally picked up a win, Karman Kaur Thandi put in another nervy, inconsistent performance on her home court. The 19-year-old made a meal of a straightforward match against world No. 761 Eudice Chong, dropping her serve thrice en route a 6-3, 6-4 win.
Thandi, ranked 284, broke her opponent in the second game of the match, before conceding serve in the next game. The players exchanged service breaks for three more games, before Thandi held twice and served out the set with an ace. In the opening game of the second set — a nine-minute affair featuring four deuce points — Thandi failed to convert a break point, and was broken to give away a 0-2 lead. A proficient player would have consolidated the break, but Chong, who plies her trade in the third division of NCAA in United States, conceded two breaks to lose the match.
“I think Karman needs to be a little calm and patient,” captain Ankita Bhambri said after the tie. “She needs to take the right amount of risk at the right time. Some players will tire you out, some will play their shots. You have to see which balls are to be hit, and need to put the ball in on big points.”
Frustratingly, Thandi has lived up to her billing of a top prospect in patches. The six-footer has unsettled the likes of Yafan Wang (125) and Zarina Diyas (55) with her strong service, and on Friday, Chong, like others, chose to receive from well behind the baseline. In the three matches, Thandi has racked up eight aces, more than any other player. But the inconsistency of her serves and groundstrokes has been an issue.
“It’s not easy playing Fed Cup in India,” says coach Aditya Sachdeva. “She is faltering at the big points, but she’s only going to improve with more matches.”
The victory in the first singles meant Ankita Raina — who defeated Ling Zhang 6-3, 6-2 — didn’t have to pull a double duty for the third straight time, as Bhambri handed Pranjala Yadlapalli the Fed Cup cap. Yadlapalli, who turns 19 next month, teamed with Prarthana Thombare to beat Kwan Yau Ng and Ching Hu Wu 6-2, 6-4. Like the Thandi match, the doubles rubber too featured exchange of breaks in five straight games, as both pairs lost the plot in the second set, with the Indians prevailing with a final break.
The doubles conundrum has the potential to be a major headache for India. With stalwart Sania Mirza out with an injury, seasoned Thombare was expected to play the anchor. However the 2014 Asian Games bronze medallist with Mirza failed to shine against China and Kazakhstan, and the losses proved to be the difference between India playing to reach the World Group and battling to stay in the Zonal group. On Thursday, Raina hinted at lack of chemistry and experience teaming with Thombare being the reason for the results.
Against Hong Kong though, the chirpy 25-year-old Thombare spurred her partner on. While Yadlapalli’s booming serves forced both Hong Kong receivers to stay back on return, Thombare chipped away with efficient poach volleys.
The opponents — both ranked above 1000 — got an opening in the fifth game of the second set, which saw Yadlapalli send down an ace sandwiched by two double-faults. The break set off the five-game long sequence which ended with the Indians breaking their opponents to love.
“We saw that Pranjala wasn’t playing as well so we started attacking her a little bit, but we couldn’t maintain our game,” said Karan Rastogi, captain of Hong Kong, who will take on Thailand in the second relegation playoff. “At this level you can’t have these many ups and downs. But we knew whatever matches we win this week will be upsets. The Indian girls were stronger, fitter and more aggressive.”