The future seems bright

A jubilant Indian team after defeating Japan 3-2 in the Davis Cup tie.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The way both Prakash Amritraj and Rohan Bopanna fought against the Japanese in the Davis Cup regional Asian tie recently was commendable. Indian men’s tennis, no doubt, appears to be bouncing back to life, writes Kamesh Srinivasan.

Leander Paes has managed to soothe the egos of his players and bring the best out of them in Davis Cup tennis.

A captain need not always be liked by his players, but he has to necessarily get good results from his team. For someone who has served the nation with distinction and won quite a few titles, including an Olympic bronze medal, Leander knows pretty wel l that the unwarranted hostility against him by the players would not stick in public memory, which is full of his heroics. He chose to maintain a studied silence, even as he let himself evolve as a shrewd captain, willing to mend his ways, if necessary, when his players revolted against his leadership.

With the All India Tennis Association (AITA) playing a key role in holding the team together, it was tough for the opposition to beat India.

Leander was indeed a proud captain as he led his team to the World Group play-off with a superb display against Japan at home.

In what could easily be termed as one of the best days in recent Indian Davis Cup history, Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amritraj fought like champions and revealed a steely resolve as they beat the Japanese challenge on the opening day of the regional Asian tie in New Delhi.

While the strapping Bopanna made light of his ranking — he is No. 325 on the ATP list — to outplay the 118th-ranked Kei Nishikori in the fifth set with a flurry of big serves, Prakash, ranked No. 261, saved two match-points in the decider to shatter the confidence of Go Soeda (ranked No. 156).

The Japanese may have erred in sticking to rankings and youth, rather than pin hopes on the seasoned Takao Suzuki, but the Indian boys had earned their respect in a grand fashion.

A captain cannot just hope that the numbers would do the trick, for it has been repeated too often that rankings go out of the window in a Davis Cup tie. He has to play his cards well. It was indeed a masterstroke when Leander put Somdev Dev Varman ahead of Prakash in the tie against Uzbekistan in February. Never mind the fact that Somdev, the NCAA singles champion, cut a sorry figure on grass. Leander, after all, had sent out a clear signal to his team that it was performance that mattered most and not the players’ rankings.

Leander, no doubt, has a great respect for the commitment of both Bopanna and Prakash. However, he has been unhappy with the fact that they have not been able to push their game up in the last few years.

Bopanna and Prakash, between them, had won only 10 singles matches in Davis Cup after having started as far back as in 2002. Besides, all those wins have come only in the Asian region, though Bopanna showed great character in fighting against the French Open finalist, Martin Verkerk, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 6-7 (7), 10-12 in Holland in 2003.

Basking in glory... Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amritraj (right), who showed steely resolve in the opening singles.-AP

“This victory should give them a lot of self-belief. I have myself given Rohan a hard time for not winning those five-setters in the past and for not having the required physical fitness. We know that Prakash is one of the fittest guys and he showed a lot of heart in his match. All of us honestly expected him to win his match. It is very big to win two five-setters in a day. It should give them the confidence in long matches in future as they know what they are capable of,” observed Mahesh Bhupathi.

If one thought that the eternal conflict between Leander and Mahesh would affect the morale of the Indian team, then he needs to revise his opinion. In fact, the two are actually doing a good turn to the Indian team.

It will be the fourth World Group play-off for Bopanna and third for Prakash. If they maintain the intensity of approach and improve upon their performance in the play-off tie scheduled in September, they can take India back into the elite World Group of 16 countries.

With Leander and Mahesh providing the stability in doubles, the singles players need to worry about winning only one match each. Leander and Mahesh can provide a further shot in the arm for Indian tennis by winning a medal, nothing less than the gold itself, at the Beijing Olympics in August.

In the tie against Japan, Leander and Mahesh were playing together for the first time since the Doha Asian Games in December 2006. They need to play together in a few more tournaments before the Beijing Games and the two have given an assurance that they would prepare very well for the Olympics.

With Harsh Mankad showing good progress after a long lay-off owing to injury and Somdev set to turn professional soon on completing his University education in the US, it augurs well for the future of Indian tennis.

Indian men’s tennis is slowly coming back to life.

THE RESULTS India beat Japan 3-2

Rohan Bopanna bt Kei Nishikori 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.

Prakash Amritraj bt Go Soeda 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 8-6.

Mahesh Bhupathi & Leander Paes bt Satoshi Iwabuchi & Takao Suzuki 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Mahesh Bhupathi lost to Kei Nishikori 5-7, 1-6.

Leander Paes lost to Satoshi Iwabuchi 4-6, 6-4, 4-6.