Davis Cup: Will India’s grass gamble pay off?

India's Ramkumar runs into Italy's Seppi, while Prajnesh takes on Berrettini.

Ramkumar Ramanathan and Andreas Seppi, who will play the first rubber of the Davis Cup tie between India and Italy in Kolkata.   -  Debasish Bhaduri

Grass is tennis royalty. It is perhaps why sites that house pristine grass courts are considered the most hallowed. The Calcutta South Club is one such venue.

These are the lawns on which, apart from Indian legends, the likes of Australian Roy Emerson, winner of 12 Majors, and Romanian Ilie Nastase, a former World No. 1, tried in their prime and even won the prestigious National Lawn Tennis Championships, held for more than five decades since 1946.

Centenary year

Now, in its centenary year, the Club will welcome Italy for the Davis Cup Qualifier starting on Friday. Should the seeping history inspire the Indians to climb out of the zonal level and get back among the elite, it will be a story befitting India’s rich Davis Cup past.

The visiting Italians too are no strangers to such history. The last grass court tie they played was at this very venue, 34 years ago. The Indians lined up the brothers Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan and Sashi Menon and beat them 3-2, the only success in five ties.

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Back then grass was India’s strength. After beating Italy, it seeded the clay courts in Bengaluru to turn them into grass and better counter the Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander-led Swedes, the defending champions.

Today, grass is a disruptive force, chosen by India captain Mahesh Bhupathi to throw the clay-loving Italians off in the middle of a hard-court season.

India coach Zeeshan Ali strategising with the singles players Ramkumar Ramananthan and Prajnesh Gunneswaran ahead of the Davis Cup tie against Italy in Kolkata.   -  Debasish Bhaduri

 

Ramkumar Ramanathan, whose game comes closest to what’s required, will open proceedings on day one against the seasoned Andreas Seppi, ranked 37 in the world. Prajnesh Gunneswaran’s clash with the highy rated Matteo Berrettini will follow.

On paper Italy is the favourite and Seppi taking the court first would set things up. Other than Simone Bolelli, who is more of a doubles player, each of its four members sits above Prajnesh, the highest-ranked Indian at 102.

World No. 19 Marco Cecchinato, who famously beat Novak Djokovic at the 2018 French Open, will feature alongside Bolelli in doubles against Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan, but remains an option for the reverse singles.

However, the collective Davis Cup experience of the trio of Cecchinato, Berrettini and Thomas Fabbiano, the fifth member, is one rubber across surfaces. Ramkumar, on the other hand, debuted on grass and has beaten Dominic Thiem and reached an ATP Tour level final on the surface. Last year, Prajnesh beat the then World No. 23 Denis Shapovalov at Stuttgart on grass.

Unique platform

Also, one of the thrills of the Davis Cup is its remarkable ability to provide a platform for the sport’s non-stars to arrive on the stage. One need not look beyond Prajnesh, whose victory in only his first live rubber, and the tie locked at 2-2, felled China and set him on course for a career-best season.

As the tennis world gears up to embrace a new-look Davis Cup, a chance to relive a glorious tradition is no bad thing.

THE DRAW

Friday (Feb. 1): Ramkumar Ramanathan vs. Andreas Seppi (11 a.m.), followed by Prajnesh Gunneswaran vs. Matteo Berrettini.

Saturday (Feb. 2): Rohan Bopanna & Divij Sharan vs. Simone Bolelli & Marco Cecchinato (10.30 a.m.), followed by Prajnesh vs Seppi & Ramkumar vs. Berrettini.