Leander, as usual, plays a vital role

Leander Paes, was at his magical best to give the Japanese even a whiff of a chance.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Leander Paes' Davis Cup record is enviable. Against Japan, the Indian tennis ace won both his singles as well as the doubles, in the company of Mahesh Bhupathi.-Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM

The practice session was coming to a close on a sunny afternoon, on the eve of the draw. The young man broke into a 1000-watt smile as one made eye-contact from a distance. It was as if he had already hit the jackpot.

Rohan Bopanna did not have the same smile a few days later, though he obviously was a very satisfied man after winning the `live' fourth rubber and sewed up the contest against Japan, in the Asia-Oceania group `I' Davis Cup tie in New Delhi.

The big-serving Bopanna had to wait on the wings for some time. The young man was thrilled when he found his name in the Davis Cup squad.

Once Leander judged that Bopanna was playing much better on grass during the training sessions, than what he had seen him during the Davis Cup tie against Australia in September last year, there was no doubt that Bopanna would get the nod from the non-playing captain Ramesh Krishnan. Of course, the seasoned captain opted to remain tight-lipped till the draw ceremony about his choice.

It was a tie that looked tailor-made for Bopanna, as he donned the No.1 position in the squad by virtue of his ATP ranking. It was the first tie in a long time when Leander had to take the No.2 position as he had not been playing any singles in the circuit. His singles ranking is now in the four-figures.

Playing at home, on grass, in front of a huge crowd should push one's game up by a few notches. In the event, it calls for considerable composure on one's part to avoid the risk of being carried away.

Bopanna's inexperience of playing on grass was quite evident as the 22-year-old Coorgi faltered against Gouichi Motomura in the opening rubber.

Motomura rifled some amazing returns. Bopanna served 23 aces and had 20 double faults to nullify his good work in that match. More than that he made too many volleying errors, even he put the sitters away.

The tall Coorgi struggled to cope with the wet grass. Having rarely played on grass, and having been used to the predicatable and high bounce of the synthetic surface, Bopanna really struggled in handling the unpredictable bounce. The lack of confidence reflected in his poor volleying.

Bopanna, who had shown his mettle in making it to the final of the $100,000 Asian Championship in Tashkent, went down fighting to Motomura. He had given a good account of himself earlier in the Asian Games. Bopanna made the biggest stir when he defeated the 83rd ranked Hyung-Taik Lee in a Challenger. For long, an Indian player had not beaten a top-100 player.

There was no doubt about the credentials of the young man, but the question was whether he would withstand the Davis Cup.

In the event, a favourable turn of events meant that Bopanna had to beat the 503rd ranked Jun Kato rather than the 132nd ranked Japanese No.1 Takao Suzuki in the crucial fourth rubber. He won in straight sets to the celebration of Indian team.

The Japanese were upset that Suzuki had taken ill from Friday and was running a high temperature. It was courageous on the part of Suzuki that he did not show any signs of illness in his fight against Leander Paes, who was at his magical best to give the Japanese even a whiff of a chance.

Forget the rankings, these two were the best players representing their countries. Once India won that match, it was very much in the driver's seat.

Mahesh Bhupathi took time off from the $ 140,000 WTA event in Hyderabad to be with the team for the tie. He pulled his weight in considerable measure in partnership with Leander Paes, in front of a huge gathering, as the Asian Games gold medallists beat Jun Kato and Thomas Shimada for the loss of seven games in three sets.

It was on the same court that Mahesh had come back from being two sets down in the decisive fifth rubber to beat Gabriel Silberstein in the tie against Chile in 1997. Then he had his shoulder operated in 1999, now Mahesh has lessened the load by not playing the singles in Davis Cup, but his fierce commitment for the cause of the team remains.

Leander, at 29, is already a veteran in the Davis Cup arena. He did not disappoint the crowd on that Sunday afternoon, despite getting off to a sedate start that saw him being down 0-5. It was tough to motivate himself, playing a dead rubber, but Leander has handled so much pressure for so many years that he put his game together soon to pull it off against Motomura who had not beaten him in their last four meetings in Challengers, spanning over six years.

It was also the 63rd win for Leander in Davis Cup, one more than Jaidip Mukerjea. Leander is now at No.2, behind Ramanathan Krishnan who leads the all-time Indian list with 69 wins.

In winning the third match in the tie, Leander also pushed his record of having done so 14 times in 32 ties. India had won 21 of those ties, which shows the importance of having Leander in the team. He is, of course, the most successful active player in the Davis Cup arena.

``I don't know why he plays so well in Davis Cup,'' was how the Japanese captain Jun Kamiwazumi expressed while admiring for Leander, after the match against Suzuki.

More than playing his part well on the court, Leander ensured that the rest of the squad was kept motivated, be it in telling Bopanna to keep his chin up and work harder after the defeat on first day, or talking to Harsh Mankad and Sunil Kumar in good humour.

India will play New Zealand in the next home tie in April. New Zealand defeated Pakistan. In Wellington last year, Leander had scripted another of his fine wins over New Zealand in cold and windy conditions.

Ramesh Krishnan said that Bopanna would do well to work on certain areas of his game to be ready for the tie against New Zealand.

``It is important to focus ahead,'' said Ramesh, who has played a good part with his simple approach in keeping the team together as one unit, apart from making sure that it prepared pretty hard for the ties.

It was one area the Japanese seemed to have ignored. They did have the famous Bob Brett, the erstwhile coach of such stalwarts as Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic, but the team did not take the precaution to stay healthy during the tie.

Even when they were in full strength back home in Tokyo last year, Leander showed his prowess with a memorable triumph. So, a less than 100 per cent fit Japanese stood no chance in India.

The Japanese also tried to make an issue of the measurement of the area around the court. However, the ITF was informed by the All India Tennis Association (AITA) months in advance about the width being only 56 feet and nine inches instead of 60 feet as was required for the zonal ties.

In fact, the same court without any change, had been used for the previous tie against South Korea in 2000.

The crowd was well-behaved, though it was a bit noisy. There was an instance when Kato was given a first serve after a erratic first delivery on the basis of crowd disturbance in the match against Bopanna, but overall the situation was very much under control.

The Japanese bench did influence one of the linesman to make repeated calls of foot-fault, even on second serve, against Bopanna in the first rubber while it tried in vain to intimidate another linesman who had made a good call on the baseline in the fourth rubber.

The team had failed in its main task of being ready in strength for the tie. For, Suzuki with Shimada had stretched Leander and Mahesh to five sets in the doubles in Tokyo. A fit Suzuki could have really tested India.

More than anything else, the Indian second string will work harder to get into the shoes of Bopanna, who himself will be a lot more motivated to sharpen his game. That is the positve aspect of this tie. Well, Prakash Amritraj, son of Vijay Amritraj, will have to get the results and push his ranking up to be able to push ahead of Bopanna, Harsh and Sunil Kumar in the Indian Davis Cup team.

As long as there is healthy competition, Indian tennis will stand to benefit, from the internal race. They all have a lot to learn from Leander and Mahesh, who have won titles in all the four Grand Slams.

It is not just about hitting the ball well, but it is about sporting a positive attitude, and facing adversity with fortitude. Every time they come for Davis Cup, the boys will push their game up by a couple of notches. "I enjoy playing in the Davis Cup and I am learning all the time. I have done well in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, but I am known for what I have done in Davis Cup,'' said Leander.

Playing for the team and playing for the country can make you play a lot better than what you think you really can. That is the spirit that makes Leander click.

Leander's ranking may be 1002, but when he is playing Davis Cup he is a top-20 player for sure, any day! Bopanna is a top-100 in comparison.

India beat Japan 4-1 (Rohan Bopanna lost to Gouichi Motomura 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-7 (4-7), 3-6; Leander Paes bt Takao Suzuki 6-3, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4; Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes bt Jun Kato and Thomas Shimada 6-2, 6-2, 6-3; Rohan Bopanna bt Jun Kato 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-4; Leander Paes bt Gouichi Motomura 1-6, 6-3, 6-4).