Australia too good

NIRMAL SHEKAR

SPEAKING at the draw ceremony held at a small conference room overlooking the river Torrens at the Memorial Drive tennis facility in Adelaide on the eve of the Australia-India Davis Cup World Group qualifying round, Brian Tobin, a former President of the International Tennis Federation, paid rich tributes to India in the context of the oldest international team competition in sport.

Lleyton Hewitt pats Harsh Mankad on the back after winning in straight sets.-AP

He said that although India had not won the Cup, it had made the final three times and successive Indian teams had made a great impression, often playing well above expectations. "We expect to see an exciting contest here between two of the strongest and competitive teams in Davis Cup," he said.

Surely, quite a few present at the brief ceremony might have thought Tobin was trying to play the part of a good host, boosting the morale of the visiting team of underdogs.

But, then, while India's accomplishments in the competition over the years might not compare favourably with that of Australia, the fact remains that few nations have achieved as much with as little as has India in Davis Cup. In the all time list, India is ranked in the top 10 (ninth) with a win-loss record of 97-64.

Time after time, many Indian teams have risen above their limitations to over-achieve on a stage that provides tremendous inspiration to men who can turn themselves into giant performers.

And, with due respect to the skills and commitment of men such as Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan - each of whom was immensely superior to Leander Paes in terms of what they accomplished outside the Davis Cup - nobody in the entire history of Indian tennis has climbed as high as Paes to match the best in the business in Davis Cup.

From the very day that he made his Cup debut in doubles alongside Zeeshan Ali in a zonal tie against Japan at Chandigarh in 1990, Paes has been consistently brilliant in the competition, often playing a level of tennis that has eluded him on the Tour, to bring off miraculous victories for the team.

Not surprisingly, Paes's win-loss record in Davis Cup (60-29) is the best among active players and there are only two Indians ranked above him in the all time honours list - Jaideep Mukherjea (62-35) and the peerless Ramanathan Krishnan (69-28).

But, from the evidence on hand over three marvellous days in spring sunshine at the Memorial Drive, it was obvious that Paes may find it very tough to recreate the magic of the past.

At age 29, after 13 years in the competition, he does not have anything left to prove. But it is not lack of motivation that is a problem. Even after all these years, nothing inspires Paes as much as Davis Cup, as much as playing for the country.

While he is still the big hearted player he always was, Paes faces two problems now. He is no long an active singles player on the Tour (his current ranking is 980) and this season he has not been quite as successful in doubles as in the previous years. This means he is rather more rusty than he has ever been in his career.

The other factor has to do with Paes's willingness to slog away from the courts to maintain prime fitness. While he is still one of the greatest athletes, there comes a time in every athlete's career when he has to put in that extra effort to keep up with the Johnnies.

At 21 or 25, Paes may not have needed to do this. But he is not quite as young anymore. He now has to work twice as hard off the court to achieve what he did four or five years ago.

Greater players than Paes have understood this and have re-assessed their priorities. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras are great examples.

Wayne Arthurs goes for a low backhand volley against Leander Paes. The Australian won in four sets.-AP

Of course, it is not as if Paes is finished as a Davis Cup champion. We must remember that India would have hardly made it to three World Group qualifying round matches in successive years but for the great competitor's ability to overcome the odds and deliver the goods.

Against Takao Suzuki of Japan in Tokyo last year, and then again in the fourth rubber against New Zealand at Wellington this year, Paes once again proved that he is a Cup player of rare merit.

Yet, when matched with the best in the business - against teams such as Australia - it becomes clear that Paes is in decline. While he may continue to surprise us, and his opponents, at the Asian level, it is going to take a lot out of him in the future to stand up top class singles players in the World Group level, or even just below it - in the qualifying rounds.

What is even more appalling, of course, is the lack of bench strength in Indian tennis. If we are stumbling at the qualifying round hurdle with Paes in the team, imagine what might happen when he chooses to call it a day.

"I am going to be around for a while mate. I am not leaving in a hurry," he said at Adelaide. "I have played lot of years but I am not done yet."

That might cheer Indian tennis fans a bit but when you look over Paes's shoulder to see what we have, there may be very little room for optimism.

Both Harsh Mankad, who surprised the world No.1 Lleyton Hewitt in the second set on the opening day, and Rohan Bopanna, who played in the reverse singles, did fairly well in Adelaide but neither is a world beater...or will ever be one.

Bopanna has the height, a good serve, and proved that he was not the type to be overcome by stage fright as he played a good match against Scott Draper and Mankad did well to take a set off Wayne Arthurs.

But, as Ramesh Krishnan, the non playing captain of the team, pointed out, "It is one thing to play well, quite another to be able to win."

Leander Paes is being consoled by John Fitzgerald, the Australian team captain, after his loss to Wayne Arthurs. India lost 0-5 in the World Group qualifying round.-AP

Paes was not merely a great competitor but a great winner. With all his limitations in terms of technique, and physical stature, he metamorphosed into a giant on the Cup stage to match and beat men such as Goran Ivanisevic, Wayne Ferreira, Arnaud Boetsch, Henri Leconte and Jan Siemerink.

While it would be ridiculous to write off the chances of the Mankads and the Bopannas vis a vis emulating Paes, to even imagine one of them doing what Paes did seems an impossible dream at this point.

"I don't know how long we can expect Leander to produce miracles. Our chances are getting slimmer each year at this level. Other Asian teams have improved in a big way and we have to find the players soon," said Ramesh Krishnan.

Asked if the future looked bleak, Ramesh said, "If it is not bleak then it is not rosy either. We have to take two steps back to be able to take four steps forward."

Meanwhile, the absence of Mahesh Bhupathi - who pulled out a few days before the tie because of a sore shoulder - did put the team some way behind against Australia.

Bhupathi's presence may not have made the difference between defeat and victory but India had a more than even chance of winning the doubles and preventing an Aussie sweep.

If Hewitt and Todd Woodbridge looked good in doubles, it was only because Vishal Uppal, who partnered Paes, turned out to be the weak link. With Bhupathi, Paes would have surely matched - and perhaps beaten - the new Aussie combination.

What is more, Woodbridge made some harsh comments regarding Bhupathi's decision to stay out of the tie and this triggered a major controversy at Adelaide.

"Paes always put himself in line for his country. He is a great competitor," said Woodbridge. Then he turned his attention to Bhupathi and said, "At the end of the day, he may regret he was not here. I don't know what the politics is but he is playing in Hong Kong next week."

For his part, Bhupathi clarified that his shoulder really was bad following the U.S. Open doubles victory (with Max Mirnyi).

"I have always been committed to Davis Cup. But I had to choose between this tie and the Asian Games and because the Asian Games comes once in four years, I wanted to rest for a week and make sure my shoulder was all right," said Bhupathi.

But, then, it is going to take more than Bhupathi's serving arm functioning at 100 per cent to help India make the elite zone (World Group) in the near future. And the picture might be even gloomier when you look farther ahead.

The result:

World Group qualifying round tie, Adelaide, September 20-22. Australia beat India 5-0 (Lleyton Hewitt bt Harsh Mankad 6-1, 7-6(2), 6-1; Wayne Arthurs bt Leander Paes 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4; Hewitt and Todd Woodbridge bt Paes and Vishal Uppal 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-1; Scott Draper bt Rohan Bopanna 6-3, 7-5; Wayne Arthurs bt Mankad 6-4, 3-6, 7-5).