Struggling with the second string

Leander Paes, the Indian captain feels that his team needs to find a good singles player.-VIVEK BENDRE

In the absence of its top players, India was left with a team of debutants to battle with Uzbekistan. And the 1-4 defeat reflected how badly Leander Paes was handicapped without his frontline players, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

Rarely has India fielded a team far below its strength in the Davis Cup as against Uzbekistan at the Pahlavon Indoor Complex in Namangan. For one reason or the other, the Indian team did not have the services of its top players, Rohan Bopanna, Prakash Amritraj, Harsh Mankad and Mahesh Bhupathi.

This meant that the skipper, Leander Paes, the hero of India's many Davis Cup campaigns over the years, was left with a team of three debutants — Sunil Kumar, Karan Rastogi and Vivek Shokeen — to battle it out on foreign soil.

Playing on red clay in Uzbekistan in cold conditions, India could have still made a fight of it had its clay court specialist, Somdev Dev Varman, not been stopped at the airport in New York. The 22-year-old student of the University of Virginia had the necessary visa documents, but could not convince the airlines authorities, who were worried that his papers would possibly not pass scrutiny during a six-hour stopover in Moscow on way to Tashkent.

In the event, Denis Istomin and Farrukh Dustov proved too strong for India, winning the four singles for Uzbekistan, dropping just one set in all. Leander and Sunil Kumar teamed up to win the doubles in five sets.

"It's a nice young team. The environment and camaraderie was excellent. The boys fought hard. Sunil and me, the way we played, I don't think that doubles is ever going to be a problem in Davis Cup. We need to find a good singles player,'' said Leander, as he summed up the tie against Uzbekistan.

A long way to go... Vivek Shokeen and Karan Rastogi (below).-SANDEEP SAXENA

Talking of Karan, Leander said that the 20-year-old Mumbaikar was a hard worker, but needed to add more firepower to his game. In contrast, the Indian captain felt that Vivek had too many weapons and needed to be controlled to help him give his best.

"He needs to keep his game simple. Vivek is one of the most talented players I have seen in the last 10 years. He has a huge serve, a big forehand, a good backhand and nice volleys. At 19, his main concern is to get all these factors working together,'' said Leander.

Leander had taken Sunil Kumar under his wings a few years ago, but somehow Sunil has struggled to live up to his immense talent. However, sharing the court with Leander and winning the doubles match was a huge boost to his confidence.

"It was a great experience. We were down 0-2 in the tie and I was nervous initially. I had also twisted my ankle in the second set and it started to pain by the fifth set. I didn't try to do anything great and stuck to the basics. At the end of the match, Leander said that he enjoyed playing with me,'' revealed Sunil, who was quite pleased with his Davis Cup debut.

For Sunil, who dropped from the main squad to the reserves in the tie against Australia a few years ago, it was a pleasant surprise to be back in the main team. That too, a day before the draw after having been included in the squad as a reserve fifth member.

R. RAGU

"Sunil played a solid game and conceded only two points on his serve in the final set. He was laughing and quite relaxed,'' said Leander, who took his overall win-loss record in Davis Cup to 79-30 from 41 ties — the sixth best in the all-time list.

For India, the next tie — the first relegation play-off against Kazakhstan — will be in April. Kazakhstan boasts one quality player in Alexei Kedriouk.

"If the Kazakhs opt for hard courts, it will be an advantage for us, and if they opt for clay, it may be a disadvantage for them,'' observed Leander, who seemed quite excited about the next challenge.

"We are not just looking to beat Kazakhstan, but would try to win every rubber,'' he said.

India missed the services of Rohan Bopanna, potentially a top-50 player, who has not been able to do justice to his potential for various reasons. He chose to concentrate on pushing up his doubles ranking for the moment in his bid to make the main draw of the forthcoming Grand Slam events.

Bopanna made the finals of two ATP Tour events last year in doubles, and was keen to build on it, though he could not defend the points at the Chennai Open, as he was busy with the Hopman Cup in Australia.

"After playing in a Challenger in South Africa, I had to rush to the US for the Tour event in which I got into the doubles main draw with my ranking. I thought that it was important for me to focus on playing the Tour events, as it is a struggle gathering points to push one's ranking up in the Challenger circuit. I have played Davis Cup and I have played even the Indo-Pak series, not to forget the Hopman Cup. It was a tough decision to skip Davis Cup, but I had to make it,'' said Bopanna, clarifying his stand.

Bopanna has an open mind about representing India in the Davis Cup in the future, though the situation may not have changed much by April when the next tie comes around.

So, for Bopanna and company will it be goodbye to Davis Cup? Only time will tell.

Kazakhstan will be an acid test for the new-look Indian team. If the Indian lads fail to win, they will have the onerous task of having to play China or Chinese Taipei in the second relegation play-off. So, the immediate task for India is to stay in Asia-Oceania Group I and strengthen the team for the bigger challenges next season.

The Results Uzbekistan beat India 4-1 Denis Istomin bt Vivek Shokeen 6-1, 6-3, 6-3.

Farrukh Dustov bt Karan Rastogi 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

Istomin & Dustov lost to Leander Paes & Sunil Kumar 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6.

Denis Istomin bt Karan Rastogi 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-1.

Farrukh Dustov bt Vivek Shokeen 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (3).