DAVIS CUP BRINGS THE BEST OUT OF HIM

AISAM QURESHI played his part to perfection, winning his singles matches.-VIVEK BENDRE

After an intense, incredible three hours and 48 minutes tussle on the Brabourne Stadium grass court, the Indian captain, Leander Paes, quelled Aqeel in the decider, writes NANDAKUMAR MARAR.

Leander Paes, the Indian captain, pitched into the battle and delivered, as usual, in the crucial decider against Pakistan in the Davis Cup. With the scores tied 2-2, India could have fielded Rohan Bopanna against Aqeel Khan, who is ranked 1416th, but Leander did not want to take chances. He knew from his personal experience that rankings don't matter in Davis Cup play, but emotions and experience do.

After an intense, incredible three hours and 48 minutes tussle on the Brabourne Stadium grass court, the Indian captain quelled Aqeel, who plays a double-handed forehand. Finally, India won the BNP-Paribas Davis Cup Asia/Oceania Zonal playoff 3-2.

Bopanna, watching from the sidelines, would have learned a lot from the way his inspirational skipper played over those five sets.

Leander suffered cramps in the third set, but the game fighter that he is managed to overcome the pain to guide his country to victory. Aqeel Khan's tireless retrieving ability, sliced backhands and punishing forehands brought the best out of the Indian captain.

Bopanna's discomfiture on grass, despite a huge first serve and a powerful volley, and Prakash Amritraj's limitations, despite a versatile game, are the worrying factors of the Indian Davis Cup team.

Bopanna and Amritraj — chosen for the first two singles against Qureshi and Khan respectively — are circuit regulars competing more on hardcourts. Leander Paes showed faith in the boys and fielded them in the singles.

But once Qureshi beat Amritraj to level the score 2-2, Paes knew that he had to play the final rubber. "All they need is more exposure," said Bhupathi, an experienced professional and winner of 10 Grand Slam doubles titles.

"For me to play a deciding rubber at 33 shows there is something wrong. We will have to tackle this issue," remarked Paes.

Pakistan's main hope, Qureshi dominated Bopanna and outlasted Amritraj. "I focused on getting my racquet to his serves, making Bopanna go for bigger serves," said the 416th ranked Pakistani, who later went on to beat Amritraj, with an all-court game.

Naresh Kumar, under whom Leander made his Davis Cup debut in 1990 against Japan, had this to say after the dramatic decider at the Brabourne Stadium.

"Paes should continue playing doubles but it is better he doesn't indulge himself in the singles role. Rohan Bopanna needs technical help, Prakash Amritraj has to relax a bit during his games.

"At the same time, we should be searching for more youngsters. These two guys are in their mid-20s, so either they have to come good fast or new guys have to be brought in."

India's next Davis Cup opponent will be known in February next year after the ITF draw.

Pakistan takes on Uzbekistan this September and the loser faces relegation to Group II.

The Indo-Pak Davis Cup match at the Brabourne Stadium was organised efficiently by the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association.

`I always give my best'

Leander Paes toyed with Aqeel Khan in the first two sets. The Pakistani's formidable forehands did not click. At 1-1 in the third set, the 33-year-old Leander suffered cramps and took medical timeout. He swallowed pills and was back in action.

Aqeel was tentative against Paes initially, but found his rhythm from the third set. The Indian captain said later that he was playing out time, and was waiting for the tablets to work on the cramps. He lost 3-6 in the third set and 0-6 in the fourth.

"The fear of losing did not crop up. I always put my best foot forward and give my best," explained Leander. "I knew I had the experience and that I could win. I had the full support of Mahesh (Bhupathi) and the boys."

"I knew Leander would come back at me in the fifth set but I couldn't do anything. I have been in such situations before and lost. Believe me, it is tougher to come back when your rival is not playing the normal game," said Aqeel Khan after the defeat.

Here are some of the remarkable victories by Leander in the decider: Beat South Korean Seung Ho Ji in a crunch fifth match at New Delhi in 1991; crushed New Zealander Simon Rea by four sets in 2004 at Invercargil; beat Japan's Gouichi Motomura by four sets in the same year at Osaka.

Paes' ability to raise his game in Davis Cup is quite phenomenal. One can never forget his victory over Croatia's Goran Ivanisevic 6-7, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the 1995 World Group Qualifiers first round match in New Delhi.

Chest bumping

Mahesh Bhupathi responded to Leander's demand for a chest bump during a high point in the reverse singles, proving that India's most successful doubles players engage in heart-to-heart talk when national pride is at stake. "When the scores are tied 2-2, there cannot be a better player for India than Leander," said Bhupathi. Bhupathi's stature on the world tour and his expertise in player-management, makes him a valuable asset to Indian tennis.

THE RESULTS

First singles: Aisam Qureshi (Pakistan) bt Rohan Bopanna (India) 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4; Prakash Amritraj (India) bt Aqeel Khan (Pakistan) 7-6 (5), 7-6 (1), 6-4.

Doubles: Leander Paes/Mahesh Bhupathi (India) bt Jalil Khan/Asim Shafik (Pakistan) 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.

Reverse singles: Aisam Qureshi bt Prakash Amritraj 6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3; Leander Paes bt Aqeel Khan 6-4, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 0-6, 6-1.