There is a buzz around India’s Davis Cup campaign, as the team has a new captain. Of course, Davis Cup is not new to Mahesh Bhupathi, 42, who was a pillar of strength for the Indian team. He had performed heroically in the ties against Holland and Chile. India had won those World Group ties on the back of Mahesh’s victories in the singles — against Jan Siemerink and Jacco Eltingh of Holland in Jaipur in 1996, and the fifth rubber against Gabriel Silberstein of Chile, which had World No.1 Marcelo Rios in its ranks, in New Delhi in 1997. Mahesh pulled off a stunning five-set victory against Silberstein after being two sets down.
Mahesh could have done better than what he had in singles but for a distinct lack of sync between the quality of his tennis and the degree of physical fitness he could command at any given time. It was one area that constantly irked Leander Paes, forcing him to make some pungent comments against Mahesh that led to the initial cracks in the world class partnership between the two, which began in 1994 at a Challenger in Jakarta.
Mahesh played his last Davis Cup doubles match with Leander in 2010 against Brazil. The pair won the match to revive India’s fortunes in the tie after it was down 0-2 at the end of the opening day. India went on to win the tie after Somdev Devvarman and Rohan Bopanna won the reverse singles.
After having played in his last Davis Cup tie, against Japan in 2011 (he had partnered Rohan Bopanna in the doubles), Mahesh returns to the arena with the aim of guiding India to the World Group.
“The challenge is to build a team that believes it can make it to the World Group. The belief is important. For that we need to win a couple of matches this year,” says Mahesh, who has been entrusted with the leadership responsibility for two years.
From being perceived as the leader of the opposition to becoming the leader of the team, there is a marked change in the profile of Mahesh, who has been busy with numerous commitments, including organising the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) and conducting tennis academies around the country.
“All my commitments revolve around tennis. So, there is no fresh challenge for me. I have been in touch with most of the players. I am in touch with them more now,” he says.
India will take on Uzbekistan in the second round of the Asia/Oceania Group 1 Davis Cup tie, beginning on April 7 in Bengaluru. It will be a big test for the new captain, for Uzbekistan had done well to make it to the World Group play-off the last three years.
In the 30-year-old Denis Istomin, whose career-best ranking was No. 33 in 2012 and who, as a wild card, had beaten Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open recently, Uzbekistan has a much feared player.
“Uzbekistan is a tough team. They have one top guy. The second player (Sanjar Fayziev) is no pushover. We have to win three points. It does not matter whether it comes from two singles and the doubles or three singles,” says Mahesh. With the courts in Bengaluru being quick and having high bounce due to the altitude, Mahesh believes that India has a good chance of beating Uzbekistan despite the fact that the host will be missing the services of the versatile Saketh Myneni, who is still recovering from a foot injury.
“The boys have been playing good. We will be playing at home. We should be able to win three matches,” says Mahesh.
When you point to the fact that barring Yuki Bhambri, who has made a remarkable return to the circuit — as was seen both at the Chennai Open and the Australian Open — after losing almost a full season to a “painful tennis elbow”, the rest have not been playing in the big league, Mahesh had a ready answer: “Pranjesh (Gunneswaran) played the Dubai qualifying event; Ramkumar (Ramanathan) will be playing the Indian Wells qualifying event. These are the biggest events. So the boys are trying hard.”
He is particularly pleased with the way Yuki, who was ranked a career-best 88 in 2015, has shaped up in recent weeks. “We all missed Yuki when he was out with injury. He and Somdev were the rocks of the team. I only hope Yuki stays healthy so that we can have him around regularly for a long time,” Mahesh says.
As captain of the Indian team, Mahesh did not want to have Somdev as a coach after the player had announced his retirement recently and had expressed his interest in coaching.
“I would have been happy to have Somdev in the squad as a player. But he is not playing any more. I would want to have Roger Federer in the team, but it is not possible. Zeeshan’s contract with the team is until 2018. He has been doing a good job and the boys have been working well with him. I didn’t see any reason to rock the boat just because I was taking over,” says Mahesh.
Having played under Jaidip Mukerjea, Ramesh Krishnan and Leander Paes, Mahesh says that he had observed some of the good qualities of these captains who had their own style.
“Naresh Kumar, I heard, was by far the best disciplinarian, and we had the best results under him. I have a few thoughts on what I can do and want to do,” Mahesh says. Despite the limitations in terms of fitness, Mahesh achieved a lot, like winning the first mixed doubles title at a Grand Slam for India in 1997 with Rika Hiraki of Japan, and becoming the first World No.1 doubles player from India in 1999. He won four Grand Slam men’s doubles titles, three of them with Leander. He won eight mixed doubles titles at the majors, two each at the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Thus, it is no surprise that he places a lot of importance on fitness and discipline.
“I have told all the players not to bother about coming to Bengaluru if they have not done the fitness test that we have suggested them to take in Mumbai. Some have done it and some will do it soon. Fitness is important. The test will give the players a perspective about where they stand. As far as discipline is concerned, they are not kids. We will put the rules in place and I am sure they will respect them,” Mahesh says.
As a first step, Mahesh has communicated with all the players and told them that he would be choosing the players based on the need and the situation. The non-playing captain wants to have a big pool of players so that he can rotate them, depending on the demands of each tie and opposition.
“There is no secret formula. We will have one or two doubles specialists depending on the requirement. At times, we may not have any specialist doubles players, like Argentina. Everything will depend on who we play and where we play,” he says.
Mahesh is particularly pleased with the fact that there is a bunch of players that keep playing in the professional circuit around the world, all the time. He believes that India has every type of players to compete on different surfaces.
What about clay?
“We have six singles and five doubles players who are ready for any surface. On clay, I am sure Sumit Nagal and Prajnesh can do well. They have been training in Europe and playing the Challengers on clay,” Mahesh points out.
Prajnesh had a string of match-points against Denis Istomin in the semifinals of the Australian Open wild card event in December last year. Istomin eventually won the event and thereafter made it to the fourth round of the Australian Open, beating Djokovic along the way.
“He has to be match-fit. If he gets some matches, at any level, it should be fine. I don’t want a player going into the fifth set and feeling that he is not ready,” says Mahesh about the possibilities of Prajnesh making the four-member squad.
It has not taken much time for Mahesh to win the confidence of his players. “I have spoken to all the players and told them that there is no guarantee of a place in the team. I want to have them in the loop for a long time and play them when the situation warrants. They have told me that they have full faith and they will be ready to play when they are called,” Mahesh reveals.
What about Leander with whom he has had a love-hate relationship for many years now? Where does Leander figure in Mahesh’s plans?
“Leander is easily the most experienced Davis Cup player in the world. I will be very happy to have him in the team. Whether he is in the four or six, it is a big boost for the team. I want him in the team as long as he is playing and available. He is very excited to play under my captaincy,” says Mahesh.
There has been a lot of friction between Leander and Rohan Bopanna for quite some time now. The two were compelled to play together at the Rio Olympics, where they crashed out in the first round. They have not been on the same side of the court thereafter.
Can Leander and Bopanna give off their best while playing together, considering all that has been said in recent months and the overwhelming bitterness between them?
“I have spoken to both of them. I will make sure that they give off their best on court if they are playing together. Beyond that nobody is interested in anything,” says Mahesh.
Leander shares the Davis Cup doubles record of 42 wins with Nicola Pietrangeli of Italy. Overall, Leander has a 90-35 win-loss record in Davis Cup in 55 ties (48-22 in singles and 42-13 in doubles) spread over 27 years.
“No one wants him to get that record more than I do. Half that record belongs to me, as we won 22 doubles matches together. We don’t know when it will come. I am looking forward to it,” says Mahesh. It should be an interesting tie in Bengaluru where India ran Serbia close in 2014 before losing 2-3 in the World Group play-off.
“I hope we have a good atmosphere with a lot of people cheering for us and inspiring our players to bring out their best,” Mahesh signs off.
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