Dramatic rally from the jaws of defeat

Celebration time… Leander Paes carries India's non-playing captain S. P. Misra on his shoulders and happy team-mates join them. “This is the best Davis Cup team I have been a part of,” says Misra.-PTI

Rohan Bopanna did the unthinkable by clinching India a historic first-ever win from being 0-2 down. High on his U.S. Open doubles final, Bopanna rose even higher against Brazil in the World Group play-off, and with him soared India, retaining its spot in the World Group, writes Kunal Diwan.

It's a wonder how Leander Paes carried Rohan Bopanna, literally, all 180 pounds of him, about the centre court at the SDAT Tennis Stadium in Chennai. Maybe the effort required was a little less burdensome than lugging the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation now that that responsibility had been manfully undertaken by the person riding astride Paes' broad shoulders.

Bopanna, after all, as he'd himself admit, had done the unthinkable by clinching India a historic first-ever win from being 0-2 down in a Davis Cup tie. High on his U.S. Open doubles final, Bopanna rose even higher against Brazil in the World Group play-off, and with him soared India, retaining its spot in the World Group.

The 30-year-old beat Ricardo Mello 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3 in the decisive fifth rubber to hand India a 3-2 win in the tie, after the host stared at a double-match deficit at the end of the first day. Bopanna trounced Mello, the same player who'd out-punched Somdev Devvarman in the second match to peg Brazil 2-0 up, and such was his dominance that not once was the Banglorean's serve broken.

But the drama had started earlier, much before any of the protagonists had even landed in the city, as cries of home advantage and tough competition did the rounds. Everybody worth their internet connection knew that beating Brazil was an uphill task.

Its chief singles exponent, Thomaz Bellucci, was No. 27 in the world and even Mello, a name hacks had to Google several times over, on a daily basis, to acquaint themselves with, was ranked No. 75, a good 38 places above India's star Devvarman. And we haven't even started on Bopanna's singles ranking yet, which, for the record, was a dismal 473.

The host did possess the expertise of Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi as its trump card, but doubles, after all, counts for one rubber, while singles has four. So when the honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M. Karunanidhi pulled out Bellucci's name from a salver of chits — to decide the order of play — not many believed India would begin on a winning note.

It almost did.

After over four hours in sapping heat, Bopanna raced to 5-2 in the final set and held three match-points against Bellucci, squandering them all, before giving way 8-10 for a heartbreaking loss.

Devvarman faced Mello next in a punch-out of equal proportions and scrambled to a two sets to one advantage, but the South American found his rhythm in time and won in five, the last two at two and four.

A couple of matches in arrears going into the doubles was not the best scenario for India, but as Devvarman had said in one of the numerous press conferences a few days earlier, Paes and Bhupathi were players one could bank on.

“We know that our doubles team can take care of anybody. That's the knowledge Bops and I go into our matches with,” he said.

And the Indian duo did not disappoint. They beat Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares hollow in three sets, of which only the middle one had any feel of competitiveness to it. The win took the pair's Davis Cup winning streak to 24 matches. And going into the third day — the day of reverse singles — the scoreline stood at 2-1 in Brazil's favour.

Bankable stars… Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes.-V. GANESAN

It was on the third day, a day of exceptional heat, humidity and stillness — even by Chennai standards — that Devvarman matched wits with Bellucci, who wilted like an uprooted plant. The players stayed abreast of each other in the first set (the only breakpoints were the three unconverted ones on Bellucci's serve) and tumbled towards a tie-break to smash the deadlock. Devvarman won the breaker at three points and Bellucci withered under the sun thereafter.

In the second set, the Indian ran up a 4-0 lead, with two breaks of serve, before the Brazilian threw in the towel and retired citing dehydration. Two apiece. And the focus shifted to Bopanna vs. Mello. The last match. The last point of differentiation between two countries that were apparently more equally matched on a tennis court than what statistics would have had one believe.

The crowd poured in. They chanted and shouted and thumped against each other whatever they could lay their hands on.

Bopanna slammed 16 aces and 52 winners to win in straight sets, giving India a famous, famous win.

Thus was marked the first occasion that India overturned a 0-2 deficit to nail a tie, since its Davis Cup debut in 1921. It was, in fact, the 45th instance of such a deed being performed in the competition.

“In Davis Cup, rankings go right out of the window. The atmosphere is so emotional that anything can happen. I tip my hat to Bopanna and Devvarman who played so well against higher-ranked players,” Paes said later.

India's non-playing captain, S. P. Misra, went so far as saying that this was the “best Davis Cup team I have been a part of”.

What was heartening was that the matches India lost were the ones that could have gone either way. Both Bopanna and Devvarman had the upper hand, at least temporarily, in their first rubbers which they failed to convert into full blown success. Or, as the toothy World No. 113 put it so articulately himself, “Had Bops or I won our matches on the first day, we'd be chilling out with a beer now.”

Let the beverage flow then, until such time that a World Group superpower sends India scuttling back to the play-offs. One cannot, after all, expect Bopanna to steal wins in singles too frequently, Davis Cup or otherwise, nor bank on the aging legs of Paes and Bhupathi to carry on forever, with or without a load of 180 pounds.

THE RESULTS India beat Brazil 3-2

Singles: Thomaz Bellucci (Brazil) bt Rohan Bopanna (India) 6-7 (2), 7-6 (7), 7-5, 4-6, 10-8; Ricardo Mello (Brazil) bt Somdev Devvarman (India) 4-6, 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-4.

Doubles: Leander Paes & Mahesh Bhupathi (India) bt Marcelo Melo & Bruno Soares (Brazil) 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-1.

Reverse singles: Somdev Devvarman bt Thomaz Bellucci 7-6 (2), 4-0 (Bellucci retired); Rohan Bopanna bt Ricardo Mello 6-3, 7-6 (3), 6-3.