Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali Thursday said Indian players are fast acclimatising to the grass courts as they plot an upset win against higher-ranked Italy in next week’s Qualifiers. The Indian squad has checked in here more than a week early to get acclimatised to the surface as most of them last played on grass-courts at the Wimbledon last year.
“It’s one of the earliest, we’ve come in for a Davis Cup tie to acclimatise and get used to playing on grass. They all believe that they have a very good chance of winning this time,” the India coach told reporters after a practice session.
“I’m hoping that it’s only going to get better from now on but as compared to yesterday, I can already see there’s a huge difference in how they are hitting the ball. It’s a good sign.”
Prajnesh enjoyed one of the biggest wins of his career on grass when he beat then world number 23 Canadian Denis Shapovalov while Ramkumar Ramanathan also savoured the best result of his career on same surface as he made the final of the ATP 250 Hall of Fame Open in Newport, last year.
In absence of top-ranked Fabio Fognini, Italy’s challenge will be spearheaded by world number 18 Marco Cecchinato who had ousted Novak Djokovic en route French Open semifinals last year. “It’s been proved in the past that rankings don’t really matter in Davis Cup. India have always been the underdogs but have come out and beat teams with have very highly ranked players.
“We reached the finals twice, we reached the semifinals in 1992. We have beaten some of the teams that have had very very highly ranked players. Davis Cup means a lot to our players. Playing for the country means a lot to them and that’s the kind of passion and fire that we want to see from our players when they step onto the courts Friday and Saturday.”
Zeeshan pointed out that India number one Prajnesh Gunneswaran is on an all time high after his career-changing Davis Cup in China in April last year. India pitted Prajnesh in the final rubber as the southpaw defeated reigning junior US Open champion Wu Yibing 6-4 6-2 to script a 3-2 victory from being 0-2.
From being world number 263 then, the 29-year-old now finds himself at 109 and Zeeshan said he’s on the verge of breaking into top-100. “Definitely that was a very changing point in his career. He had the belief in himself that he could win the fifth match. Myself and Mahesh saw the fire, the belief in him.
“That match gave him a lot of confidence and made him believe in himself that he can go out and play under tough conditions. 2-2, live rubber in Davis Cup is never easy. It’s been an incredible journey, having struggled earlier on in his career. He’s made some amazing turnaround. He’s very close to being the top-100 in the world. Maybe in another two or three tournaments, we would see him in the top-100,” he said lavishing praise on Prajnesh.
As a player he always regretted not playing for India at his ‘home’ South Club,and now as a coach, an emotional Zeeshan wants to make it up for it by upsetting Italy.
The 49-year-old had won his first three national championships at the South Club but never played Davis Cup here.
“It’s like second home to me. But the surprising thing is that even after being on the Davis Cup team for about eight to nine years I’ve never played a tie in South Club,” Zeeshan told reporters in Kolkata.
“Apart from the players, I’m also very very excited to be here and to do my bit. So for me it’s a very emotional thing to be back, not as a player but as a coach.”
The premier 119-year-old team competition in men’s tennis will return to the South Club for the first time since 2003 when India faced New Zealand. Zeeshan said the courts at the South Club appeared on the “slower side” as they wait to train there from Monday onwards.
With gallery work being done, the Indian team is training at the Calcutta Gymkhana Club. “We won’t really know how it’s playing till we go there on Monday, that’s when we start practicing over there.” Zeeshan hoped that the crowd would turn up in large numbers and back Indians.
Mahesh Bhupathi’s captaincy on line in Italy tie
The national tennis federation may not renew the contract of Mahesh Bhupathi as captain of the Indian Davis Cup team if it fails to qualify for the World Group Finals, it has been learnt.
India are up against formidable Italy but playing the hard-court specialists on grass at the Calcutta South Club gives the hosts some chance of an upset. Incidentally, the only time India won against Italy in five meetings was at this very venue way back in 1985. The winner of the tie will compete in the inaugural World Group Finals, to be held in Madrid in November this year.
It has been learnt that the All India Tennis Association (AITA) may look for a new captain, if the team will remain in the Asia/Oceania Group I, as Bhupathi’s term will be over after this contest. “Yes, it will be extremely difficult for Mahesh to remain captain if the result is not favourable. The regional matches will not begin before next year, so AITA will have some time to ponder over the next skipper,” an AITA source told PTI.
It also remains to be seen if Bhupathi himself wants to continue as captain even if India cross the Italian hurdle. Bhupathi had replaced Anand Amritraj as captain in April 2017. The Italy tie will be fifth under Bhupathi – the multiple Grand Slam winner – who began with a 4-1 win over Uzbekistan in Bengaluru.
Under Bhupathi the team twice reached the World Group Play-off stage, the maximum where it could go with the current set of players, according to the experts. It lost to Canada (September 2017) and Serbia (September 2018) in an away World Group play-off ties.
Apart from the Uzbekistan at home, the Indian team also beat China in an away tie in April 2018. It has also been learnt that at its recent Executive Committee meeting a representative of the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association (TNTA) had proposed to bring back Anand Amritraj as captain of the team and a few member supported it.
Under Amritraj, who had a three-year term from February 2014 to February 2017, the Indian team thrice reached the World Group Play-off stage. After his removal the players had written to AITA, questioning the decision even as the federation had denied receiving any such communication.
While Amritraj is keen to comeback as captain, it remains to be seen if the AITA looks for a new face or bring back the old guard.