Sweet revenge for the Dutch

NIRMAL SHEKAR

Rohan Bopanna (right) congratulates his opponent Martin Verkerk after their gruelling five-setter. Verkerk won the match 5-7, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6, 12-10.-REUTERS

IN the bar at the Mercure Hotel in the outskirts of the small and beautiful city of Zwolle in the Netherlands, an inebriated lot of Dutch fans raised the decibel level high enough to drown out the rap music belted out by the CD player behind the counter.

Beyond the glass wall on the far side, you could see picturesque farmlands and cows still grazing late in the evening, the sun as bright as it might be in Chennai in the summer at 5 p.m. And it was well past 7 p.m. this mid-September day in Zwolle.

If the setting outside the hotel and the scenes in the bar did not quite match up, then it must be said that Dutch sports fans are among the most wildly passionate — and noisy as well — ones you might find anywhere in the world.

Yet, on that Friday, as I walked into the bar, every single man and woman there walked up to the counter to shake my hands and say that India actually deserved to finish the day 1-1 against the Netherlands. In fact, the scoreline was 2-0 after day one in the World Group qualifying round Davis Cup tie. And one Indian name had etched itself in every one of these Dutch fans' memory: Bopanna.

Tough as it might be to pronounce the name for the Dutch, they did manage to master it the best they could. "Bopanna was unlucky. He played great tennis. He deserved to win," was the consensus.

At the end of the day — the tie, that is — that was about the only consolation for the Indian team, which, for the fourth year in a row, failed to get past the World Group qualifying round.

Sjeng Schalken won both his singles matches in straight sets.-AP

As unlucky as the team has been vis a vis the draw, meeting such giants of the sport as Sweden, the United States, Australia and the Netherlands, and playing each one of those ties away, the fact remains that India does not have the class and the depth to make its way into the big league as a matter of right — this, especially in the absence of the country's most heroic Davis Cup performer, Leander Paes.

Twice during these four years, Paes has been unavailable for the crucial playoff tie. In July 2000, as Ramesh Krishnan's team journeyed to Bastad in Sweden, Paes had a knee injury, which kept him out of the game for several weeks. This time, a few weeks before the team was to depart to Zwolle, Paes was diagnosed with a tapeworm infection and is still recovering from its ravages in Orlando, Florida.

With the inspiration, skills and experience of the most successful active Davis Cup player in the world — yes, I mean Paes — the team was always expected to face an uphill task against the Dutch.

And, after the match was won and lost in two days, the one Indian who had a lot to smile about was Rohan Bopanna. For a player ranked 344 in the world to leave such an impression on Dutch fans was something that was truly creditable.

But, then, against Martin Verkerk, the French Open finalist, Bopanna did not play like someone world ranked 344.

"You believe that if you want. But to me he played more like a top 50 player," said Verkerk, world ranked 14, after winning the five-set thriller 12-10 in the fifth in four hours and 35 minutes on the medium fast maroon carpet at the Ijesshallen stadium.

It was not just Verkerk who was surprised by Bopanna's quality of tennis. The entire Dutch team, several former players like Jacco Eltingh, Paul Haarhuis and Jan Siemerink, as well as the Dutch fans, simply refused to believe that the 23-year-old from Coorg was ranked 344.

In Paes' absence, this tie clearly provided an opportunity for the younger ones to make a name for themselves on the big stage. And Bopanna grabbed it with both hands to underline his maturity as a Davis Cup singles player.

From the first point to the last, Bopanna played with a level of confidence and kills that you would more readily associate with an experienced top-100 player. He made very few unforced errors, served with tremendous power and courage in adversity, and showed a tactical maturity that you would only rarely see in a player with his ranking.

"It was a superb performance. Just a few points here and there. This was anybody's game," said the Dutch captain Tjerk Bogtstra.

Actually, what might have made a difference was one point really. And it came at 6-6 in the fourth set tiebreak with Bopanna leading two sets to one.

At that point, on Verkerk's serve, Bopanna hit a forehand approach shot that was rather close. The linesperson on the baseline made no call but the chair umpire over-ruled to give Verkerk the point.

John van Lottum (left) and Verkerk celebrate their doubles victory against Mahesh Bhupathi and Bopanna.-AP

"It was close. He needn't have interfered at that crucial point," said Ramesh Krishnan.

The fact is, the umpire did, and the fact is, Verkerk went on to win the tiebreak and the fifth set too for his first ever singles success in Davis Cup. Yet, this was a match from which Bopanna can go on to draw a lot of inspiration. He proved on this day that he had the big shots to match the big league performers. He proved too that he was no one-shot — serve and nothing — wonder.

"It's nice to be able to match a top-class player in an important tie but I wish I had won," said Bopanna.

In the doubles, too, playing with Mahesh Bhupathi, Bopanna held his own in the first part of the match but his legs started complaining towards the end of the third set and the Dutch pair of Verkerk and John van Lottum went on to win the third rubber in four sets.

Paes's absence was felt very much in the doubles as Bopanna struggled to terminate points with killer volleys and when the Dutch pair mounted pressure at crucial junctures — on Bhupathi's serve in the 12th game of both the second and third sets — the Indians were clueless.

There were a few sparks, but there was no fire — read that no Paes.

Meanwhile, Prakash Amritraj, making his Cup debut, was outclassed in his first match by the experienced Sjeng Schalken. The 19-year-old, son of Vijay Amritraj, put on a brave show at the start but there was too big a gap to bridge against a top-class player playing at home.

"I can learn a lot from this match. It is always exciting to play your first match for your country. This was a learning experience for me," said Prakash.

From the Dutch point of view, it was a case of sweet revenge. Players and fans from this country have long memories. They still haven't forgotten the shocking defeat suffered by a top-class Dutch side in Jaipur in a World Group tie in 1996. With Jan Siemerink in the top 20 in the world in singles, supported by the world beating doubles pair of Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis, the Dutch came to India then with a lot of confidence.

But Bhupathi played his best tennis as a singles competitor in Cup play in that tie, winning both his matches, and Paes beat Siemerink on the final day as India won 3-2.

That the team, which beat India in Zwolle is an entirely different one did not matter in Dutch minds. What did was the result and it helped erase memories of Jaipur.

Then again, Jaipur to Zwolle is a long way indeed, literally and metaphorically.

The result: Netherlands beat India 5-0 (Martin Verkerk bt Rohan Bopanna 5-7, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (7), 12-10; Sjeng Schalken bt Prakash Amritraj 6-3, 6-1, 6-1; Verkerk and John van Lottum bt Mahesh Bhupathi and Bopanna 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-4; Schalken bt Mankad 6-3, 6-1; Raemon Sluiter bt Prakash Amritraj 6-1, 6-3).