Now, the World Group qualifying round

FOR the fourth year in a row, India has won the matches in the Asian Zone to reach the World Group qualifying round.

RAMESH KRISHNAN

As usual, everything depends on Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi when India meets Holland in the crucial World Group qualifying round tie in September. — Pic. AFP-

FOR the fourth year in a row, India has won the matches in the Asian Zone to reach the World Group qualifying round. We are drawn to play Holland and will have to visit them for the matches to be held from September 19-21. The last three years, we have lost in the same round against Sweden, USA and Australia, all powerhouse teams. Holland can't be classified in the same league. Nevertheless, they will start as firm favourites and we will have our work cut out.

What is more, this is the fourth consecutive year we will have to travel for this Qualifying Round. That makes it even tougher. Instead of moaning at our bad fortune, we need to try and put our best foot forward.

Each year, there is a lot of excitement as we wait for the `good' draw — hoping to play one of the weaker teams at home. This reminds me of the story of a journeyman tennis player who went to all the tournaments hoping to get a `good' draw. He kept on losing and in course of time realised that he was the `good' draw. All the other players were hoping to have a go at him. Likewise, while we moan our bad luck at drawing Sweden, USA, Australia and now Holland, we don't know what their reaction is.

The Davis Cup competition is more than 100 years old and I would think all you readers are aware of it. But over the years, the format of the tournament has changed with the times. I find that even close tennis followers are not clear on this and I would like to spend a little time updating you.

Each year, the top 16 nations in the world take part in what is known as the World Group. They are in effect playing for the actual trophy and for this year, the semi-final line-up is Australia v Switzerland and Spain v Argentina. India has last been in the World Group in 1998 and our best performances have been reaching the final in 1987 and the semi-final in 1993. Should we win the September tie against Holland, we will get a place in the World Group draw for the year 2004.

India is a part of the Asia/Oceania Group 1, which is the group just below the World Group. By virtue of our wins this year against Japan and New Zealand, we have qualified for a spot in the World Group qualifying round.

There are 16 teams involved in the World Group qualifying round — eight losers in the first round of this year's World Group competition and eight nations like us who play our way through our zone. This is a single elimination tie with the winner progressing to the World Group and the loser going back to his zone (Asia, Europe or America).

While India has been going between the World Group and the Asia/Oceania Group 1, there is also a Group 2, Group 3 and Group 4 in each zone. Each year, the best team gets promoted to the next zone and the worst drops down a level. So, theoretically, a team starting in Group 4 this year will have to wait for four years to play for the actual trophy, provided it keeps moving up the ladder.

But the beauty of the Davis Cup competition is that all these details get lost. You could be playing a tie anywhere in the world at any level and you still feel you are a big part of the whole process.

Part of our problem when we get to the World Group qualifying tie is that we do not get seeded (eight teams get seeded). This seeding is based on the singles ranking of our players and right away this puts us at a disadvantage. While Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are ranked highly in doubles, they do not play any singles on the Tour.

In the last 10 years or so, India's best win in Davis Cup has been against Holland. This was in February 1996 and the tie was played on the grass courts at Jaipur. India won the tie 3-2 and this we did even after Leander and Mahesh lost the doubles match. Going into the final day, we were down by 2 matches to 1 and Leander and Mahesh won their singles matches on the final day. Mahesh had also won his singles on the first day to give us the three victories. To date, this has to be Mahesh's best performance in Davis Cup. These matches are played on a reciprocal basis and hence it is our turn to visit them.

Now, let us have a closer look at the Dutch team — the one that lost to Switzerland in the first round this year. Their challenge will be spearheaded by Sjeng Schalken. Schalken was a semi- finalist at last year's US Open Championships (lost to the winner Pete Sampras) and a quarter- finalist at Wimbledon (lost to the eventual winner Lleyton Hewitt). In fact, at Wimbledon, he was the only player to take a set off Hewitt. Schalken took two sets in the match and for a brief period even looked like getting past the Aussie.

I don't know too much about their younger players — Ramon Sluiter and Martin Verkerk. I believe Sluiter has reserved some of his best play for Davis Cup as he helped his country reach the semi- final round a couple of years ago. This is Verkerk's first year on the Tour and he has already won a fairly big title. Paul Haarhuis rounds out the quartet. Haarhuis is an outstanding doubles player — he was a part of the doubles team that defeated Leander and Mahesh in Jaipur. He is semi-retired now but still is keen to do his bit for his team. Just to give an idea of how old Haarhuis must be, he had started when I was still around so he definitely is past his peak. Nevertheless, Leander and Mahesh can't take him for granted.

For India to have any chance of coming through, Leander and Mahesh have to win the doubles. They should start as the favourites but need to come into the Tie in good form. These days, since they don't play that much with each other, they do take a little time to get into their rhythm. A good team may not allow them that luxury.

Leander, of course, has to be the backbone of the team. This despite the fact that he is a part time singles player these days. He has had some of his best singles wins in Davis Cup in Europe — the two wins against France in Frejus (1993) and his win over Jiri Novak in the Czech Republic in 1997. He will have to recall those moments from his memory.

I did find Leander to be in top form during our recent win against New Zealand. Last September, when we played Australia, he struggled but seems to have regrouped during the off season. I don't know whether it is due to watching Andre Agassi at age 32 playing his best tennis, or sharing the same court with the 46-year-old Martina Navratilova in Mixed Doubles. Whatever be the reason, Leander's enthusiasm has been rekindled. From 29 years old, I feel he is approaching 30 years `young'.

Rohan Bopanna has been a part of our last two victories and is gaining valuable experience. His game is clearly on the upward swing. The question is how much he can improve and how soon? Anyway, there is a little bit of breathing space as the next tie is some five months away .