Time to take stock

Rohan Bopanna did himself and our country proud by his efforts against the Netherlands' Martin Verkerk in the Davis Cup tie. It was one of those matches where a single point here or there could have changed the outcome.-AFP

THE recent tie against the Netherlands concluded my fourth year as the captain of the Indian Davis Cup team and I guess this will be a good time to take stock.

THE recent tie against the Netherlands concluded my fourth year as the captain of the Indian Davis Cup team and I guess this will be a good time to take stock. When I accepted this position, I had said that reaching the World Group (meant for the top 16 teams in the world) should be the objective. Unfortunately, we are yet to do so, though we have just fallen one match short in each of the four years.

While it has been creditable that we have reached the World Group qualifying round each year in four outings, we have managed to win just one match and 11 sets! Why so?

For one thing, our team lacks overall strength, especially in singles. We do not have one player within 300 in the world ranking and our spearhead, Leander Paes, is ranked in four digits. So when you face a team such as the Netherlands whose four players are all ranked within the top 100, the numbers are clearly stacked in their favour. Moreover, we also do not get seeded because of lack of top singles players (seedings are based on singles rankings of players) and this means we have to face one of the bigger guns.

We have also had a tough run with the draw. Three of the nations that have defeated us, Sweden, USA and Australia, have all gone on to reach at least the semi-final the following year. (Australia is in the final against Spain and are the favourites to win the Cup). I am curious to see how the Netherlands fares next year. They have the potential to do well.

As a sportsman, I have always felt that you have to play the hand you are dealt but each of the four World Group qualifying matches, which have been against strong opposition, have also been away from home. There is no doubt that any team in the world would much rather play at home, on a preferred surface, with crowds cheering you on. We have not had this luxury.

Injuries have also been a factor. In three of these ties, we have gone without a full strength team. In Sweden 2000 and Netherlands 2003, Leander Paes was missing in action, whereas in Australia 2002, Mahesh Bhupathi was absent. In fact, our only victory in the past four years had been when Leander and Mahesh combined to win the doubles match against USA in 2001.

This Indian Davis Cup team certainly misses the presence of Leander Paes. When he is around, there is a feeling of "we can do it." There has already been plenty spoken and written about his recent illness and we are all happy that he is on the road to recovery. What I would like to add is that he has turned 30 this year and it is not going to be easy to regain top form. Quite apart from the time he has been away, we also have to take into consideration the mental trauma he has undergone. He seems to be keen to get going again and will need all the luck.

In Leander's absence, it is fair to say that Rohan Bopanna did a "Leander" in the recently concluded tie against the Netherlands in Zwolle.

This Indian Davis Cup team certainly misses the presence of Leander Paes. When he is around, there is a feeling of "we can do it." There has already been plenty spoken and written about his recent illness and we are all happy that he is on the road to recovery.-CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGES

Going into the tie, our expectations were fairly low. In fact, it was comparable to the tie against Sweden where we only won two sets. But unlike in Sweden, where we played on clay, which our boys do not like, the Dutch tie was played on a carpet surface.

Rohan Bopanna faced this year's French Open finalist, Martin Verkerk in the first match. While on paper it looked like a mismatch, we knew that the Dutchman had not been in good form recently and felt was the weak link. It is on record now that Rohan went on to play a historic match — lasting well over four hours. He did himself and our country proud by his efforts. It was one of those matches where a single point here or there could have changed the outcome.

As I look at my notes now, I see that each time Rohan won a set (he won the first and the third set), he failed to press home his advantage by losing his next service game. In spite of all this, he fought neck and neck till the end. But serving second in the final set also proved to be a disadvantage. From 4-5, onwards, he was always under the gun and it was creditable that he held on for as long as he did.

This first match proved to be our high-point and we could not keep up with our opponents. Sjeng Schalken won two singles points in a very impressive fashion. He did not lose his serve in the two matches and that is supposed to be his weak area! In the last two Wimbledons and US Opens, he has reached the quarterfinals, semifinals, quarterfinals and quarterfinals respectively. And he showed us the kind of form that helped him achieve it. On what I saw during that weekend, I feel he is playing at a notch just below the championship level. While he may lack the firepower to win a big title, he certainly has the ability to spoil the chances of some favourites. If the Dutch are to do well next year, they need a good performance from him.

During the same weekend that we took on Netherlands and seven other World Group qualifying matches were being played, the semi-finals of this year's competition also took place. Australia played Switzerland and Spain faced Argentina.

The first day of the Australia-Swiss tie saw a rematch of this year's Wimbledon final, Roger Federer vs Mark Philippousis and Federer won again in a convincing fashion. The highlight of this tie was the meeting between Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer. Federer won the first two sets and served for the match in the third set before Lleyton wriggled out to put Australia in its fourth final in five years.

Hewitt has had a lacklustre year by his standards — not going past the quarterfinal in any of the Slams and this victory may just be the tonic to revive him. Roger Federer has shown he is a top class player in Davis Cup play. The Swiss rely heavily on him to win all three matches for them to have any chance and this he has managed to do against highly fancied teams.

The Spaniards hosted Argentina on red clay. With three French Open titlists and the fourth being a two-time finalist, they were not worried that the Argentines were also comfortable on clay. The visitors also had their share of injury problems but in true Davis Cup style, the tie went down to the fifth match before Spain booked their place in the final. I would imagine that the final will be played on grass and the team of Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippousis will be too much to handle.