Back among the elite

Published : Sep 26, 2009 00:00 IST

The signs were bright for impressive results to unfold when Somdev Devvarman shrugged off poor form once he stepped on the hard courts of the U.S.-AP
The signs were bright for impressive results to unfold when Somdev Devvarman shrugged off poor form once he stepped on the hard courts of the U.S.-AP

The signs were bright for impressive results to unfold when Somdev Devvarman shrugged off poor form once he stepped on the hard courts of the U.S.-AP

Somdev Devvarman stages an amazing comeback to steer India into the World Group after 11 years. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

The young man has an admirable attitude. He is inspired by tough challenges, rather than be intimidated by the occasion or the situation. Somdev Devvarman is a tennis star in a different mould, quite unusual in the Indian tennis scene.

In fact, Indian tennis has been waiting for an athlete of the 24-year-old Somdev’s calibre for a long time. The signs were bright for impressive results to unfold, when Somdev shrugged off poor form once he stepped on the hard courts of the U.S. When, as a qualifier, he beat Marin Cilic of Croatia, ranked 15 in the world, in the second round in Washington DC, Somdev announced that he was ready to take on anyone. In the next round, he could not beat the towering Ivo Carlovic, another Croat, whom he had tamed in Chennai, but Somdev was sure that he was ready for a blistering streak in the final stretch of the season.

The confidence and cracking form that saw him rage like wild fire in the Chennai Open ATP Tour event at the start of the season, when he consumed the former world No.1 Carlos Moya, and became the first Indian singles player to make the final in 14 years of the tournament’s existence in the country, were back.

Whatever little doubts that the hard core Indian tennis follower may have entertained were brushed aside, when Somdev qualified for the U.S. Open and made the second round, losing in four sets to the 24th ranked Philipp Kohlscreiber of Germany.

He was speeding up the rankings and threatening to overtake Zeeshan Ali’s career-best rank of 126, achieved in 1988. However, it did not matter. It is a foregone conclusion that Somdev belongs to the top 100 in the world. He may at some stage overtake Leander Paes, the doubles star, who was ranked as high as 73 in singles in 1998. Possibly, if he stays injury free, Somdev could be a top-50 player, though his style of play takes a heavy toll on physical reserves.

He may be going up the ATP rankings quite briskly, but nothing captures the imagination of the Indian tennis enthusiasts, as much as the heroics in the Davis Cup arena.

There is a charm when you play for your country, rather than for yourself or the precious dollars that sustain you on the professional tour. There is greater challenge when you play Davis Cup away from home, trying to tackle the hostile conditions as much as the craft of the opponents.

Well, Indian tennis has been waiting for a star to take it to the elite World Group for 12 years. It was Mahesh Bhupathi who had won the decisive fifth rubber in 1997 against Chile, when he beat Gabriel Silberstein in a dramatic fashion after being two sets down.

For once, in nearly two decades, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi had no role to play in India’s triumph, when the young colts bearded the South African lion in its den in Johannesburg.

It was Somdev Devvarman who carried the team on his shoulders. It was he who won the marathon fourth rubber, against the South African No.1, Rik de Voest, in four hours and 44 minutes, the longest match in Davis Cup for an Indian, as he battled back from two sets down and a break down in the third, to clinch the tie for India.

“I definitely saw that he was physically worse than me. I knew that he was not going to play the way he had played in the first set. After I got ahead in the fifth set, I knew that the key was to keep the ball in play,” said Somdev, who had the energy to jump high and punch the air in triumph after the energy-sapping exercise, played at an altitude of about 2000 metres above sea level.

Somdev had set the ball rolling on the opening day when he outclassed Izak van der Merwe in straight sets. That had inspired Rohan Bopanna to play one of the finest matches of his career, when he outplayed the No.1 player, Rik de Voest after losing the first set.

It did not matter that Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna had to retire midway through the doubles as the former had pulled a leg muscle. The Indian singles players were ready to step up and seal the fortunes for India for once, without depending on the doubles rubber.

It was the icing on the cake when the 17-year-old Yuki Bhambri, the World No.1 junior, won the fifth rubber in three sets, for a memorable Davis Cup debut.

Bopanna on fire may have made Rik de Voest look like easy meat, but Somdev knew him pretty well as he trains with him a lot and shares the same coach, Scott McCain. He was ready for a tough battle and depended on his strong physical abilities to have the final say.

For once, an Indian tennis player cannot be beaten on staying power.

“Even when he was two sets down, we had full confidence in Somdev. Once he gets a foothold, nothing can beat him. Once he took the third set in the tie-break, there was no doubt that he would win,” said non-playing captain S. P. Misra, quite a relieved man, after he had witnessed Romania outclass the Indian team on slow clay in Bucharest last year.

The Indian Davis Cup captain Leander Paes had come for a lot of flak when he blooded the young Somdev on grass in Delhi against Uzbekistan in February last year in Delhi, instead of playing his No.1 Prakash Amritraj on the opening day. It is another matter that Somdev could have played in Uzbekistan a year earlier, but for a visa problem that saw him stranded in the U.S. on way to the tie.

Somdev provided a sample of things to come when he outclassed Yen-Hsun Lu of Chinese Taipei in the first round this year in the Asia-Oceania zone. When Australia refused to come to Chennai for the second round, quoting security worries, it was clear that destiny was driving India to the World Group.

When South Africa announced its team without its No.1 player, the 137th ranked Kevin Anderson, it was once again clear that India had the best chance to make the elite group of the top 16 countries, after having failed to do so in the last seven attempts in 11 years.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Indian tennis has a player who is ready to make it an interesting battle against the elite tennis nations of the world. Somdev Devvarman will inspire a legion of Indian players to be super athletes first, which augurs well for the health of Indian tennis, known for its touch and finesse.


India beat South Africa 4-1 (Somdev Devvarman bt Izak Van Der Merwe 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 6-4; Rohan Bopanna bt Rik De Voest 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4; Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna lost to Jeff Coetzee and Wesley Moodie 3-6, 6-3, 0-4 (retired); Somdev Devvarman bt Rik De Voest 3-6, 6-7 (3-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-2, 6-4; Yuki Bhambri bt Izak Van Der Merwe 3-6, 6-3, 6-4).

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