Swedes slick on wet grass

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

Thomas Johansson: playing to a plan.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THE conditions were not good, but Sweden, easily the better of the two teams in the Davis Cup World Group play-off tie held in New Delhi — not just because it had world No.14 Thomas Johansson and the world doubles No.1 Jonas Bjorkman in its ranks — adapted well.

Johansson was quite confident about his game on grass, having given Andy Roddick a run for his money in the Wimbledon semifinals after having made the semifinals of another grass event earlier at the Queen's Club. The former Australian Open champion was on top of his game, having also reached the semifinals the previous week in Beijing.

Bjorkman was ranked 94 in singles and had reached the third round of Wimbledon and the quarterfinals of another grass event at s-Hertogenbosch. He had won the French Open doubles with Max Mirnyi of Belarus for his eighth Grand Slam Trophy. The duo had lost the final of the US Open to the Bryan twins, Bob and Mike.

It was thus no surprise that the Swedish team showed great maturity in not allowing the unpredictable bounce of the centre court to affect its focus, or for that matter, the 48 hours of rain delay, as the competition spilt into Monday.

The host was able to win a memorable doubles with Leander and Mahesh Bhupathi combining brilliantly, and Rohan Bopanna presented a good image by stretching Johansson to three tie-breaks, though it had to be conceded that the 25-year-old Coorgi missed a great opportunity as he missed two setpoints, each in the first and third, while being brave in saving five setpoints in the second set.

The Swedes, led by former world No.1 Mats Wilander and assisted by another top-10 player Joakim Nystrom, had acclimatised to the hot and humid conditions, even as they scheduled their practice sessions nicely to avoid draining themselves before the tie.

In contrast, the Indian team was not ready for the battle. The champion of many a Davis Cup campaign, Leander Paes, was not willing to play in the singles, as he was not sure of his form, having won just one match in doubles in four tournaments in the American summer after the quarterfinals at the French Open and Wimbledon. Moreover, Leander did not wish to strain his shoulder much after having dislocated it during the mixed doubles final at the French Open.

To add to the woes of the host, Prakash Amritraj, the No.1 player, was equally short of matches as he had done precious little after reaching the finals of the Forest Hills Challenger on July 3. He had torn a tendon on his left leg. He also had won only one of four matches in three tournaments since then, including the US Open qualifying event.

By the clinical fashion in which Bjorkman handled Prakash, coming up with smart returns and exquisite volleys in the first singles, it was clear that a half-fit Leander would have been a much better proposition. But then, Leander had declared that it was "not a Leander show any more''. He was trying to build the team for the future, and the initial steps invariably would be painful.

Of course, Leander himself has not won a singles rubber in World Group play-off since beating Gabriel Silberstein in 1997 in New Delhi. The losses were in away ties against Britain, US and Australia, while he was not in the team against the Dutch.

Rohan Bopanna came up with an impressive fare, and was broken only once in the whole match. In fact, Bopanna could have carried on with the tempo and possibly broken Johansson's resistance had he held serve in the seventh game of the first set after having broken the Swede in the previous game.

Jonas Bjorkman in full flow against Prakash Amritraj.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Unfortunately, Bopanna served three of his 12 double-faults of the match in that game, and let go a golden chance, by getting broken at love. He did capture everyone's imagination by firing 22 aces and 11 service winners, but Bopanna would rue those double-faults, including the ones he made in the tie-breaks of the first two sets.

It was not as if Bopanna was playing big against a top player for the first time. He had stretched the French Open finalist Martin Verkerk before losing 10-12 in the fifth set in his previous Davis Cup singles rubber, albeit in 2003. He had beaten Hyung-Taik Lee of Korea in a Challenger and had also made it to the final of the Asian Championship, narrowly missing the wild card for the Australian Open in 2003.

Even in recent weeks, Bopanna was in good form as he beat the top-seed on way to reaching the semi-finals of the Challenger in Bukhara in Uzbekistan apart from making the doubles final of the Asian Championship in Tashkent.

However, the problem with Bopanna was that he was trying too hard, rather than allowing the unpredictable court to help him to some extent. He went far too much on the backhand twice in missing the two setpoints in the 12th game of the third set.

"I had to go for my shots. A player of his calibre would not give me points'', said Bopanna as he defended his approach.

On the other hand, Johansson admitted that his plan was simple, "put the ball above the net and serve well''. The 30-year-old Swede handled the tie-breaks like a champion in outplaying Bopanna, who added to his own woes by twisting his ankle during the third set.

The Swedes were lavish in their praise of Bopanna, and declared that he deserved to be in the top-100 rather than languish in the 300s.

Leander himself said that Bopanna stood out with his big game, and that it was a big learning experience for his team.

The former Davis Cup coach, Akhtar Ali, said that there was a big difference from playing a close match and winning.

The Swedes also agreed by saying that it was three tie-breaks alright, but it was still 3-0.

The bad thing was that Bopanna twisted his ankle and damaged a ligament which would rule him out of action for three weeks. He had to go through a surgery on his serving arm earlier which kept him away from action for months.

Well, India has won only two rubbers, both doubles matches, in the last five ties in the World Group play-off, twice against Sweden, and one each against the US, Australia and the Netherlands since losing to Britain 2-3 in Nottingham in 1998.

Both the times it required the genius of multiple Grand Slam doubles champions, Leander and Mahesh, to beat world class opposition. The two combined brilliantly this time to shut the Swedes out after having lost the first set.

The tried and trusted doubles pair, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

But, as was only to be expected, the 271st ranked Prakash struggled to match Johansson in the reverse singles, despite putting up a much better fare than what he had dished out in the first match.

He volleyed better and retrieved very well, but Prakash was made to look like a novice many a time as Johansson made him literally run round in circles with his judicious placements.

If anything, the Indian lads need to work on their fitness, and the good results would take care of themselves.

In fact, there is a strong need for a physical trainer for players such as Bopanna, Prakash and Harsh Mankad, rather than a coach.

It is back to the Asia Oceania Zone for India, and the competition is not going to be any easy there, especially when playing away from home. The Swedes were themselves happy to have avoided a return to the regional competition, despite their rich tradition of having stayed in the World Group continuously from 1981 except for one year.

The results: Sweden beat India 3-1 (Jonas Bjorkman bt Prakash Amritraj 6-4, 6-4, 6-4; Thomas Johansson bt Rohan Bopanna 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4); Jonas Bjorkman and Simon Aspelin lost to Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 3-6; Thomas Johansson bt Prakash Amritraj 6-4, 6-3, 6-2).