The team has settled down

Anand Amritraj (right) with Somdev Devvarman (left) and Rohan Bopanna.-K. MURALI KUMAR Anand Amritraj (right) with Somdev Devvarman (left) and Rohan Bopanna.

“My goal has pretty much been the same — to get us into the World Group. Last time we were one match away, losing to Serbia 3-2. It was a lot closer than anybody thought we could come. It was a shame that we couldn’t pull it off. So that is still the goal,” India’s tennis captain Anand Amritraj tells N. Sudarshan.

In the past five years India’s journey in the Davis Cup has been topsy-turvy. From the heights of being in the first round of the World Group in 2010 and 2011, the subsequent two years were spent languishing in the regional Asia-Oceania Group I competition. The danger of slipping to Group II and thus into tennis oblivion was there but was warded off. A players’ rebellion against the All India Tennis Association ensued too.

However, in the time since then, much has eased. There is a certain camaraderie in the Davis Cup team that’s hard to miss. The bunch helmed by captain Anand Amritraj and coached by Zeeshan Ali is more of a family, sure about its abilities with each player standing up for the other in times of need. Last September, it punched above its weight and was just a match away from qualifying for the World Group again but lost to Serbia 3-2.

Ten months on, it is up against New Zealand. A win will give it another chance to qualify for the World Group in September. Ahead of the tie, which he termed ‘winnable’, captain Amritraj shared his thoughts with the Sportstar on his time so far.

Excerpts:

Question: What were the goals you set yourself when you took over in September 2013?

Answer: It has pretty much been the same — to get us into the World Group. Last time we were one match away, losing to Serbia 3-2. It was a lot closer than anybody thought we could come. It was a shame that we couldn’t pull it off. So that is still the goal.

What are the improvements that you have seen in these past two years?

Somdev (Devvaraman) has performed as well as he could. He was unbelievable against Korea when we won 4-1. Then against Chinese Taipei. He had an amazing third day against Serbia. Yuki has played well in the past six months. People were tough on him initially. But he had an injury lay-off. Against Serbia his fitness was not 100 per cent. But he has come a long way since then. I am expecting him to be really good this year.

So was it a gamble to play him against Serbia?

It was. But I chose him because it’s hard to replace somebody who is ranked 150 or so. If he had been 300, yes, I would have replaced him. But it was hard to toss him out. Also Saketh Myneni wasn’t in the four. Rohan Bopanna, if chosen, would have given his best shot. But he had not played singles in four years and in best of five matches it is extremely difficult.

What are your views on the talent pool in India?

If you get away from the 28-year-olds and 30-year-olds we have Yuki and Ramkumar. Then come Sumit Nagal, who I have never watched, and Sasi Kumar Mukund. These guys have a long way to go. It’s always tough to jump from juniors to seniors. Unless you are one of the top juniors it is very, very tough. Every 50 spots is a huge jump.

Anand chatting with Leander Paes.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

What can you do to improve it?

In the days I played the Nationals had much more importance. So was the grass court Nationals. Not so much today. You need to attract players to play there — either with money or with ranking points. The ATP points are out of question. So if you give the winners say five lakhs, there is some incentive for them to play. Also, if one isn’t in the top-200, you should make it mandatory for them.

Also one needs to understand that you cannot make a life out of playing the Futures tournaments (the lowest rung). You need to get out of the rut as soon as you can. It’s a complete waste of time going to Spain and playing Futures. Rather play the qualifying of some Challenger. Also these days the top players don’t play each other. They don’t want to play sets, let alone matches. It’s done in the US. They get all the players at a place and organise matches. The whole level of play goes up.

Indians have traditionally done well in doubles. Why is that they drift towards the format? Don’t we need quality singles players to make a name in the Davis Cup?

Absolutely! We need two top 100 players to get ahead. I will say that all the youngsters should focus only on singles. There should be no thought about doubles for a good 10 years. No thought at all. Leander (Paes) and Mahesh (Bhupathi) played singles before switching. Rohan too played singles early on. If you want to play doubles, do it later in the career.

You have been the captain for two years now with a good amount of coaching involved. And you also travel to a lot of tournaments, see different players and coaches. How do you see this era of the high-profile coaches?

Who doesn’t have a coach? When Vijay (Amritraj) and I played we were each other’s coach. These days even doubles players have coaches. It is very helpful with the mental aspect.

So are you an advocate of court coaching like in the Davis Cup? The women’s game even had it.

No. It shouldn’t be even in the women’s event. It’s an individual sport. You are playing for yourself. You should be able to figure out things on your own.