The triumph of spirit

Published : Sep 30, 2010 00:00 IST

What a pair...Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi celebrate their victory in the doubles. The Indians took their Davis Cup winning streak to 24 matches.-AP
What a pair...Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi celebrate their victory in the doubles. The Indians took their Davis Cup winning streak to 24 matches.-AP

What a pair...Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi celebrate their victory in the doubles. The Indians took their Davis Cup winning streak to 24 matches.-AP

India's remarkable come-from-behind victory, after being 0-2 down against Brazil, ensured the country's place among the Davis Cup powerhouses. It was for the 45th time in the history of the championship that a team had pulled off such a dramatic victory. By Kunal Diwan.

“It gets so loud that you feel like some kind of gladiator and not a tennis player at all. The adrenaline of the crowd pumps you up like you cannot imagine.”

— Henry Darko, an uncelebrated, relatively unknown bearer of Ghana's Davis Cup fortunes.

No stranger to Davis Cup exploits, India tapped on this primeval energy of the crowd and a deep sense of national identity to write itself into the almanacs with its first ever win from 0-2 behind against Brazil in the World Group play-off in Chennai recently. The result clubbed India with a host of traditional powerhouses, making it the 45th instance of a team effecting a radical reversal after being faced with a double-rubber deficit on the opening day.

India, thus, retained its place in the World Group — having lost to Russia earlier in the year — whence it will begin another long journey, possibly all the way to the title round, which it had last reached in 1987 as an unseeded gatecrasher. Sweden wiped India out in that final, and in 1988, the Asian nation had the dubious distinction of exiting in the first round following a final showing the previous year.

Despite a lack of sizable presence on the professional Tour, India has always been a creditable performer in this glorious team competition. Aside from 1987, it has to its credit two more finals — in 1966 and 1974 — and an array of memorable wins carved out over higher-ranked opponents. In 1974, under the captaincy of Ishmale Bopanna, India was an overwhelming favourite to win against South Africa in the final, but refused to compete citing the apartheid policies of the host country.

The recent triumph over Brazil in Chennai helped India tip the head-to-head 2-1 in its favour, after having swapped ties in 1966 and 1991. Calcutta, 1966, was special. It was the first meeting between the countries, and finding themselves tied at two apiece, neither was willing to yield an inch in the decisive rubber, where Ramanathan Krishnan took on the big-serving Thomaz Koch.

Koch, a top-30 player, led by a break in the fourth set, and Krishnan, it was widely expected, was likely to fold under a barrage of big serves. The match was suspended due to bad light and as play resumed the following morning, a tidbit from the past was generated in the Indian's head. Krishnan remembered how, at Wimbledon a few years ago, a fellow player had revealed to him the leaden-footedness of Koch in his approaches to the net. That was it. Krishnan began to mix it up, drew the Brazilian forward, found him wanting at the net, and completed a 3-6, 6-4, 10-12, 7-5, 6-2 win to give India the tie.

The countries did not run into each other for a good 25 years, but in 1991, in Sao Paolo on outdoor clay, Brazil hosted India in a first round match of the World Group. The South American nation won 4-1, India's lone success coming in the doubles where Ramesh Krishnan partnered Leander Paes to beat N. Aerts and F. Roese in a gruelling five-setter.

Two years later, Ramesh, along with a young Paes, was responsible for another memorable win, against favoured France in the World Group quarterfinals in Frejus. Not quite at home on outdoor clay, the Chennai touch artiste lost his opener to Arnaud Boetsch, a future top-15 candidate, in straight sets before the 20-year-old Paes equalised with a four-set ouster of Henri Leconte, a French Open finalist playing with a turbo-charged home crowd behind him. The doubles too went the way of France, and India began the final day on 1-2. Paes won his reverse match against Boetsch — a victory that ranks right up there with his scalp of Goran Ivanesevic — and Ramesh's last rubber against Rodolphe Gilbert assumed the role of a decider. The fixture was concluded in semi-darkness, Ramesh winning it 6-4 in the fifth, and off went India into the semifinals, where it was dealt a 0-5 pasting by the Aussies in Chandigarh.

Almost 20 years hence, following the departure of the old guard, Paes continues to grow in stature and is now the most successful Indian Davis Cup player with an overall record of 86-31. He is two wins shy of matching Ramanathan Krishnan's Indian record of 50 wins in competition singles (48-22), a format he is now reluctant to play, having chosen instead to focus on doubles (36-9).

“For me, nothing can beat the experience of representing the country. I'd still choose an Olympic or Commonwealth Games medal over winning a few more Grand Slams. My responsibility to my captain and to a billion people is more than what it is to just me, when I play professionally on the Tour,” Paes said recently on what made him tick, with such bloody relentlessness, in the Davis Cup.

His win with Mahesh Bhupathi over the Brazilian pair in their latest outing in Chennai took the duo's Davis Cup winning streak to 24 matches. But even the doubles win against Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares would have fallen short of easing India into the World Group were it not for the battling instincts of Rohan Bopanna and Somdev Devvarman, both of whom toppled higher-ranked players in the reverse singles.

Although this was the first occasion of India turning it around from being two matches in arrears, there have been three instances of it coming back from 1-2, the last being against The Netherlands in 1996 in Jaipur on grass. Interestingly, India's redoubtable pairing lost its doubles encounter in that tie (to Paul Haarhuis & Jacco Eltingh over four sets) but Paes and Bhupathi came back strongly to win their return matches against Jan Siemerink and Eltingh respectively. Since, the two have not lost a Davis Cup doubles rubber, racking up a 25-2 record, a major factor in the country's upward course in the tourney.

In its 74th instance of participation in the competition, India's progress from here will depend upon the luck of the draw as well as on an ability to squeeze its underdog status for wins. Also on the minds of those that matter will be the time-related decrease in the abilities of its doubles pairing and concerns over filling the huge breach, when it arises, with suitable candidates.

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