'On the road again'

"ON the road again" is the title of a popular number from some years ago and it might as well be the theme song of the Indian Davis Cup team. We have to travel to New Zealand for the second round of the Asian Zone which will be played from April 5 to 7.

This is the sixth consecutive away tie for us going all the way back to July 2000. In fact, it will be a full two years since we have played a tie at home and I wonder if this is some kind of a record. All last year, we never got to see the sun - all three ties were played indoors as were our recent Davis Cup matches against Lebanon.

Should we beat New Zealand, we will once again make it to the qualifying match for the world group competition but we will have our hands full. Windy Wellington has been chosen as the site for our tie. Apart from being windy, the weather in April can be rather cold and the courts, slow.

But one cannot use these as excuses. This is part and parcel of Cup play and one of the thrills is to perform well overseas. I am also happy to add that we have won three of our overseas ties in the past year (losses have been to Sweden and USA).

As far as the New Zealand players are concerned, I have not seen them play. Nor have they distinguished themselves on the international circuit. Still, I expect them to be tough at home.

Our history against New Zealand is also not favourable. We played them thrice in the seventies in quick succession, losing all three times. (We should have won two of them)

Anyway, the last time we played them was in January 1978. It was one of my first matches in Cup play and it was long before any of our present team members had held a tennis racket for the first time. I will make sure not to talk about those matches! But all this is getting a bit ahead of the story. We travelled to Lebanon recently and this was a special visit for many reasons. My first tie as Davis Cup captain two years ago was against the Lebanese. And as tennis players, while we pride ourselves as being world travellers, this was our first visit to Beirut.

There is not much to report as far as the matches themselves were concerned. Two years ago, they had given us some anxious moments but things were different now. One of the players has since retired and the other has gone back to school and is hardly playing these days. The matches turned out easy but we had to guard against complacency. We won all five matches in straight sets, not losing more than three games in any one set. Apart from the lack of opposition, this also meant that our players played to their potential.

Leander Paes, as usual, was our spearhead as he won two singles and the doubles. By doing this, he has become the winningest active player in Davis Cup play. (Though grammatically incorrect, this conveys the point). I feel this has not received enough attention in our national media. This is quite an accomplishment, one that we can all be proud of.

This was also the first time Harsh Mankad won a match representing our country. He arrived in Beirut from the USA along with the Lebanese players and was promptly mistaken as a part of their team. He has had a rough baptism as he had to face the might of Sweden and USA in the previous matches. He was due for an easy match. Harsh has been studying in the USA along with playing tennis. Here is wishing that this is the first of many more victories for him. He has tennis from his mother's side and cricket from his father's side oozing out of his genes.(Harsh is the son of Nirupama, a national champion and Ashok Mankad, a former Test cricketer. His paternal grandfather is the famous Vinoo Mankad and his mother's father, George Vasant, an ex-Davis cupper passed away recently).

Apart from Leander and Harsh, Mahesh Bhupathi, the other playing member and Rohan Bopanna were in the team.

This was Rohan's first time as part of the Davis Cup team and all the boys had fun formally initiating him!(something along the lines of ragging in college). One of the funny stories on the Indian circuit involves Rohan Bopanna. He had gone to a movie theatre carrying a toy pistol. When the usher asked him for his ticket, he wielded the pistol Hindi movie-gangster-style! The rattled usher promptly reported the matter to the police and Rohan had plenty to answer for. We had to make sure we didn't have any of this bravado in Lebanon!

Quite apart from the matches being easy, this was one of my nicest visits. Lebanon has received such bad press that we were all apprehensive about travelling there. (When I told one of my friends that I was visiting Beirut, his answer was, make sure you avoid the missiles). In the previous round, Chinese Taipei had defaulted to them. But once our External Affairs Ministry gave us the go ahead, we all looked forward to this trip. Lebanon is a beautiful country situated on the Mediterranean sea.

The weather is temperate and the day after the tie, most of us had a chance to go sightseeing. The drive along the coastline was magnificent and what was interesting was that within half an hour from the beaches, we were up in the mountains watching snow fall!

Fifteen years of civil war has ravaged the country and life is slowly getting back to normal. One can still see buildings that have borne the brunt of urban warfare. But the one thing that will really stay with me is the warmth and kindness with which the people received us!