Prakash’s moment of glory

Celebration time… Prakash Amritraj is congratulated by his father, Vijay Amritraj, after his remarkable victory over Uzbekistan’s Farrukh Dustov in the final match of the Davis Cup tie.-RAJEEV BHATT

With the tie level 2-2, India’s non-playing captain, Leander Paes, picked Prakash Amritraj to play the final reverse singles against Farrukh Dustov. And the Indian did not disappoint, as he beat the Uzbek in four sets. Kamesh Srinivasan reports.

Prakash Amritraj had the final say, but the script belonged to Leander Paes.

The best-ranked player in the Indian team had reasons to be upset about being kept out of action on the first day of the Asia-Oceania Group I tie against Uzbekistan in New Delhi, but in the end, he had to thank his captain for giving him the chance to enact the role of the hero on the final day. Prakash’s moment of glory came after Rohan Bopanna left the job unfinished following a marathon fourth rubber against the Asian champion and Uzbekistan No. 1, Denis Istomin.

Bopanna, 27, India’s spearhead following his superb form in the run-up to the tie, was flawless on the first two days when he showed his class and his new-found confidence on his favourite surface, grass. He was continuing the good work on the final day when he led Istomin 4-2 in the third set after pocketing the first two. But as ill-luck would have it, Bopanna could not clinch it.

Istomin slipped so much on the surface for want of a good pair of grass-court shoes that he said it was like playing on ice. However, unlike his team-mate Dustov who was disheartened by the slow and low bounce, Istomin showed the courage to stand up to the odds against a quality player and turn the script around with a brilliant performance.

Serving 4-3, 30-0 up in that eventful third set, Bopanna missed a half-volley when victory seemed to be within his reach. It was a half-hearted attempt. While Bopanna complicated matters for himself with a double-fault on the next point, Istomin pounced on the chance straightaway with a breathtaking passing shot. Bopanna dropped three service games in a row to lose his grip over the contest, while Istomin proved to be the master in the climax, dictating the course of the match.

It was for the fourth time that Bopanna had lost a five-setter. He had lost to the French Open finalist Martin Verkerk 10-12 in the fifth set in the World Group play-off in Holland in 2003. The same year, he lost 7-9 in the fifth set to Alistair Hunt of New Zealand in an Asia-Oceania tie on grass in Kolkata. And last year, against Kazakhstan, the Indian went down to Alexey Kedryuk in five sets after winning the first two sets and leading 4-1 in the fourth.

As India’s non-playing captain Leander Paes observed, Bopanna should be able to pull off victories from these situations in the future if he keeps working on his physical fitness. He has been focussing on this by taking a trainer along with him on the tour of late and that has already started bringing Bopanna good results.

After Bopanna’s loss to Istomin, the stage was set for Prakash to prove his mettle. He started hesitantly, but pushed his game up after losing the second set to overwhelm Dustov. It was time for champagne, and the cork came off the players’ emotions too. Leander was in tears at the press conference as he mentioned that he hated to say, “I said so”.

“We were all ready and it was left to the captain to throw any one of us into the contest. We were expected to play our roles well, and I think all of us did that,” said Prakash, who was quite happy to have played the key role in India’s triumph.

Rohan Bopanna exults after giving India a good start by winning the first singles.-RAJEEV BHATT

Prakash recalled the victory speech of Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open, “Champions take chances, pressure is a privilege.” The Russian’s speech, Prakash told the media, was brought to his notice by his father Vijay Amritraj.

Sharapova’s victory speech, incidentally, was inspired by a message she received from Billie Jean King.

For India, the question now is about Somdev Dev Varman looking out of sorts on grass though he was courageous enough not give any excuse for his performance. A fine athlete that he is, Dev Varman, the NCAA singles champion, was able to stretch Istomin in the second rubber on the first day, but lacked the wherewithal to convert the crucial breakpoints.

Dev Varman, however, could be a key member of the Indian team when it plays abroad on hardcourts, indoor or clay. Leander, though, stressed that he was purely going by the current form of the players rather than their rankings and reputation. He assured that he would look at the form of the players for the next home tie, likely to be at the same venue on grass, against formidable Japan, in April.

If anything, Leander may have to keep Mahesh Bhupathi in the team, much against his plan of having three singles specialists, as both Bopanna and Prakash may have to be preserved for the singles.

Leander himself was quite willing to play with Mahesh and said that he was actually looking forward to playing with him in the tie against Uzbekistan.

If they are aiming for an Olympic gold in Beijing, Leander and Mahesh have to start preparing right away. Both the players have said that they have no ego problems between them, but somehow the focus has been missing in them. Fabulous champions that they are, it’s time Leander and Mahesh paid attention to the enormous task on hand.

THE RESULTS India beat Uzbekistan 3-2

Rohan Bopanna bt Farrukh Dustov 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.

Somdev Dev Varman lost to Denis Istomin 3-6, 4-6, 2-6.

Rohan Bopanna & Mahesh Bhupathi bt Denis Istomin & Farrukh Dustov 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

Rohan Bopanna lost to Denis Istomin 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-7(1), 6-8.

Prakash Amritraj bt Farrukh Dustov 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.