Noteworthy win for many reasons

India recently scored a comfortable win over Japan in the first round of our 2003 campaign.

India recently scored a comfortable win over Japan in the first round of our 2003 campaign. We had expected a tough game, but it turned out to be much easier than expected. Neverthless, it was noteworthy for many reasons, the main one being that we maintained our superiority over the Japanese.

Leander Paes gestures after winning a point against Japan's Gouchi Motomura in the fifth and last match of the India-Japan Davis Cup tie in New Delhi. Paes won this match and India went on to win the tie 4-1. Paes' Davis Cup record is phenomenal. — Pic. A<232>P-

An important feature was that Leander Paes, by virtue of his three victories, has attained the second best Davis Cup record by an Indian. As I look up the record books, I see that many other Indians have served our country well in Davis Cup play. While Leander is on his 14th season, he has quite a ways to go to catch up in terms of the number of years in Davis Cup play. I don't think any other country has demanded so much from its players. While those who have done their duty have done it whole-heartedly, this clearly points to a lack of bench strength. In all other countries, in due course, the younger generation pushes you off the team. This is the way it should be.

Another reason the Japanese tie was noteworthy was that Leander had made his Davis Cup debut against them way back in 1990. It was in the doubles match, and, Leander and partner (Zeeshan Ali) won a marathon match after the Japanese had served for it. Those watching that day certainly knew a star was born but I don't think any one realised the kind of yeoman service that he was about to render. I don't think anyone in their wildest dreams would have thought that in the year 2003, Leander would still be the flag-bearer against a Japanese team.

The other significant point is this was our first home tie in close to three years, going all the way back to 2000 April. In the interim period, we have had seven away ties on the trot. This must be some kind of a record. And in these seven ties, we won four ties — three of them against China, Japan and New Zealand which we could just as easily have lost. A true test of any team is how well it travels and the Indian Davis Cup team can be proud of these victories.

Speaking of New Zealand, it is our turn to play host. One of the benefits of having been on the road is that we have run out of countries to visit (Davis Cup matches are played on a home/ away basis). This match will take place in Kolkata at the famous South Club courts from April 4 to 6. We are also going to be playing on grass courts, as usual. While there are still grass courts in New Zealand, not much tennis is played on the lawn. Synthetic surfaces have become popular. So the grass courts of Calcutta will be an advantage.

It was just a year ago that we visited `Windy Wellington' and I still remember all of us with all our woolens on, trying to keep warm with the cold Antarctic winds blowing. Just as we had to fight against the elements in New Zealand, the Kiwis will also have their work cut out. I remember one of Leander Paes' comments — `The next time they visit us, let us play in the hottest place in India.' Well, Kolkata in April will suffice!

Our biggest trump card will be Leander. This, irrespective of the fact that he is almost off the singles ranking and the only time he plays singles is in Davis Cup matches. What is commendable is that after all these years he is still as dependable as ever.

We will of course be counting heavily on the doubles point. Mahesh Bhupathi, along with Leander, has not lost a Davis Cup doubles match in several years. Despite the fact that they have not been playing together in the past year, they continue with their winning ways, which I am sure make their fans wonder......

As far as the other singles spot, Rohan Bopanna made his debut in the match against Japan. He has a lot of power in his game but the problem is when he is a bit off form, he is not able to keep the ball in play often enough to give himself a chance. Harsh Mankad completed the team, which played Japan and has played singles for us last year. While Harsh is very steady, he lacks the explosion of Bopanna. If you could put the best of the two of them together, we could have one very good tennis player!

After all these years, the younger generation is still not ready to bear the responsibility. This, in spite of the fact that our youngsters are getting more and more exposure than years before. But the point here is that tennis has become that much more of an international sport. So the relevant comparison is whether our youngster is getting the same opportunity as his counterpart today from other countries.

We have top class players coming up from other Asian countries. Paradorn Srichapan of Thailand (closely knocking at the top ten in the world) and Hyung Taik Lee of South Korea have already won titles on this year's Tour. And when you talk about European players, they are at a different level.

A couple of thoughts regarding our younger players. One is that their levels of fitness should be of world standards. Otherwise, it is going to be tough to match up. And this physical fitness culture has to be inculcated at a very early stage. In this department, our children are not up to the mark.

I also feel Indian tennis has gone backwards the day we stopped sending out our top junior players as a team to Europe. A lot of us in the years past have learnt a lot from these trips. We had to do well in the local tournaments to earn this. And the European visit provided the extra competition which brought you to an international level. Why we stopped this process, I don't know. The sooner we can revive it, the better.