The Leander show continues

HE has been taking short steps, but Rohan Bopanna has surely been making progress.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

HE has been taking short steps, but Rohan Bopanna has surely been making progress. More than being a theatre for Leander Paes to showcase his ability, the Davis Cup Asia-Oceania zonal ties have, in recent months, been used as a platform by the 24-year-old Coorgi, Bopanna, to announce his arrival on the big stage. The tie against New Zealand at the South Club in Kolkata was no exception.

It was for the second time that Bopanna won a `live' fourth rubber to seal the contest, after the 29-year-old Leander played with clinical efficiency on his favourite grasscourt to shut out the hopes of the Kiwis.

It could have well been two singles wins in the tie for Bopanna, but he lost his way after a good start when he had called the shots against the coach turned player, the New Zealand No. 2 Alistair Hunt.

The conditions did play a part in that match, as the wet surface did not suit Bopanna's game as much as it made Hunt angry. Bopanna is not just a big server but capable of hitting delightful strokes. Of course, he needs to sharpen his volleys but that can come only with time.

More than anything, the fact that the second singles match was washed out by a heavy spell of rain after Leander had overwhelmed the Kiwi No.1 Mark Nielsen in the opening rubber, proved a damper. For, it is one thing to ride on a wave the same day, and totally another when you come back the next morning, and then get on with the game after many postponements owing to the wetness of the surface.

All said, Bopanna had no business to lose that match when he was a breakpoint up in the third after taking the first two sets at 6-4 each.

"That is the time he should have stepped on the pedal", observed Ramesh Krishnan, who did not hide his disappointment that the young man had lost out on a golden opportunity to help the host to a 2-0 advantage, a rare score for India in recent ties.

Bopanna lost the tempo with loose play and kept dropping serves in the third and fourth sets with alarming frequency, as he delivered 20 doublefaults in that match that lasted three hours and 10 minutes. He did have chances to atone for his errors in the fifth set, but Hunt played a solid game despite the fact that he was close to collapsing after the long hours of exercise.

"It is tough when you have to serve second in the decider", said Ramesh. Bopanna had ensured that he would face that added pressure as he had lost the fourth set by dropping serve, which meant that Hunt would start the fifth set with his serve.

Small points, which anyone playing tennis knows, but you do not learn them unless you are given the harsh lessons as was the case with Bopanna.

"I shouldn't have allowed that match to go to the fifth set in the first place. I had so many chances, but did not convert them", said Bopanna, himself so thoroughly disappointed that he could not get any sleep that night.

Yet, the young man showed that he had picked up all the lessons from that defeat, as he played close to his best in annihilating the challenge from James Shortall in the first of the reverse singles on the third day.

Leander and Mahesh Bhupathi had overcome a hesitant start when the latter dropped serve in the third game, to overpower Nielsen and Hunt in the doubles to set the tone for the day. Bopanna was able to continue from where the big boys left, and showcased his big game much to the delight of the Sunday crowd.

It was a match in which Bopanna returned better than ever before, a revelation to captain Ramesh, and served so consistently that he hardly dropped points, let alone his serve.

The New Zealand captain Glenn Wilson was a hard taskmaster, who had no hesitation in replacing his No.1 player Nielsen, with the tall and athletic James Shortall.

"Nielsen was sick, but we had to play him in the doubles, as it would have been too much of a load for Shortall to play both the doubles and singles", said Wilson.

It was no secret that the New Zealand captain was disappointed with Nielsen's meek surrender to Leander on the opening day. More than the defeat, it was the negative attitude that Nielsen sported on court, as he went through the motions that disappointed Wilson.

To be fair to Nielsen, it should be recalled that he had stretched Leander to five sets in Wellington the last time the two met. However, he was like a fish on sand, on the grasscourts, and Leander added to his woes with his game that scorched the Kiwi like a hot sun. That is what Leander can do to some of the best in the game, on his day, and Nielsen was a mere kid in comparison.

"Leander played a good tie break in the second set, and stepped up his game", said Ramesh who added that he would be amazed if Leander did not consistently play at his best in Davis Cup.

Yes, Leander showed his class on the first point of that tie-break. He sent a second serve down the middle, which Nielsen countered nicely, as he ran around in converting it to a forehand whip. To the Kiwi's amazement, Leander was right there at the net, executing a delectable drop volley, and the Indian hero smiled a knowing smile afterwards, as if telling the dazed Kiwi that he could play a different level whenever he wanted.

Nielsen won one point in that tie-break, and only two more games in the next set.

Thus, it was a memorable recovery for the Kiwis on the second day, when Hunt enacted an unexpected triumph, showing a lot of character on court to erase the poor memories left by Nielsen.

"Davis Cup is all about giving your best in tough conditions. Alistair played the best. Towards the end, he was playing on empty", said Wilson, as he admired the 30-year-old's ability to hang on out there till the end, despite being physically drained.

"It is my best effort, though I didn't play that well. At no stage in the match did I think that I was winning", was the frank observation of Hunt, who showed a thing or two about what experience can achieve against youthful exuberance.

Hunt had beaten Oleg Ogorodov of Uzbekistan and Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand, but winning a rubber away from home, after being two sets down was a heroic effort indeed.

Well, for the second time, Bopanna did not get to play the rival No.1, and he was not complaining about being denied the honour.

"I got lucky that way. But I was ready to play him", said Bopanna with considerable confidence.

If anything, the 6 ft 4 inch tall Bopanna has been making the best use of his association with Leander, Mahesh and Ramesh. He knows that he has a big game, and he should sharpen it further rather than play safe.

That is the heartening aspect of Bopanna's game and approach. He does not hesitate to go for it, a feature that will take him far in the professional world.

"I will go and play Challengers and try to gain ATP points good enough to help me play the Wimbledon qualifying event. Hopefully, I will be ready to play at the higher level when we meet again for the World Group play-off in September", said Bopanna.

There is quite some time left for Bopanna to consolidate on the gains from the Davis Cup and use the confidence to do well on the professional Tour. It works either way. He needs to pick up wins like the one he had over the 83rd ranked Hyung-Taike Lee in a Challenger, on the tour, so that he is better prepared to play the top players in Davis Cup.

For Mahesh, who has highlighted his commitment to Davis Cup with his efforts in the pivotal doubles rubber, though he has stopped playing the singles to avoid the load on his shoulder, it will be a welcome challenge in the higher league.

For Leander Paes, it will be a lot more exciting to give his 100 per cent to win at least one of his singles against more demanding opposition in the World Group play-off, with the hope that the second singles player would pull off one himself.

With the 19-year-old Prakash Amritraj making exciting progress on the ATP Tour, there may be more than adequate support for Leander and Mahesh in the near future.

For the record, Leander has played in 33 ties from 1990, and was winning all three rubbers for the 15th time.

No mean achievement by any yardstick. He has notched up 66 wins in the process and is only three short of the record held by Ramanathan Krishnan.

Who knows Leander may match that record this season itself. Come September.

"We are looking forward to the World Group play-off, against Holland, after having faced the heavyweights abroad the last few times", said Ramesh Krishnan.

There is a lot of excitement and expectations in the Indian Davis Cup camp. That is an excellent sign for the future.

The results:

India beat New Zealand 4-1 (Leander Paes bt Mark Nielsen 6-1, 7-6 (7-1), 6-2; Rohan Bopanna lost to Alistair Hunt 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 7-9; Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi bt Mark Nielsen and Alistair Hunt 6-3, 6-2, 6-2; Rohan Bopanna bt James Shortall 6-3, 6-2, 6-4; Leander Paes bt Robert Cheyne 6-1, 6-0).