Tennis is an individual sport for most part of the year. However, for a week or two, the players put their hustle for ranking points on the back burners and perform just for the country during the team competitions - the Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup.
The occasion can bring out the best in up-and-coming players. Case in point being the performances of Canada’s Gabriel Diallo and Alexis Galarneu, two men who are outside the ATP Top 150, but ended up beating Italy’s World No. 18 Lorenzo Musetti and World No. 38 Lorenzo Sonego in a recent group stage tie of the Davis Cup Finals in Bologna.
It can also be a humbling experience for top pros such as USA’s Frances Tiafoe and Tommy Paul who could not collect a single win in four singles matches combined against the opponents from Finland, Croatia and the Netherlands during the same group stage in Split.
The ability to hold your nerve and perform in a team environment is tested and for someone, making their debut in such a situation and that too in front of the home crowd, it is nothing short of a trial by fire. India’s Mukund Sasikumar learnt it the hard way in Lucknow on Saturday as he failed to close the match against Morocco’s Yassine Dlimi in a World Group II tie after leading 7-6(4), 4-3 (40-15).
Mukund, the 26-year-old from Tamil Nadu with a career-high ranking of 229, troubled his opponent, six years younger than him, with his flat backhand shots on a slow court with low bounce at the Vijayant Khand Mini Stadium in Gomti Nagar after a delayed start due to rain. However, from the latter stages of the second set, the Indian’s game got a bit too passive. At the same time, Dlimi raised his level and brought his big forehand and the drop shots into play to reel off four straight games and steal the second set 7-5.
World No. 557 Dlimi came into the match with five singles Davis Cup matches under his belt. He plays college tennis for the University of Central Florida and was named the 2023 AAC (American Athletic Conference) Freshman of the Year in May. You get used to that team environment and facing partisan crowds such as the one Dlimi faced in Lucknow under the collegiate system.
Dlimi also had some extra motivation to do well. A minute of silence was held before the tie for the tragedy caused by a devastating earthquake in Morocco. “It feels good that people care about your country because it is not easy (to play) with what has happened in Morocco in the last few days. It is really hard and sad for us. I won because of my country and I give them this win. Hope to win tomorrow also,” he said at the end of day’s play.
For Mukund, the mind and the body both started letting him down from 4-3 up in the second set. The doctor had to be summoned twice to assess him as he suffered from playing under extremely humid conditions. While he had been drenched in sweat pretty much from the beginning of the match, the cramps started to creep in when it mattered and he was forced to concede the three hours and five minutes long fixture while trailing 1-4 in the decider.
Sumit Nagal, the current India No. 1, was in a position similar to Mukund’s during his Davis Cup debut against Spain’s Marc Lopez in New Delhi in 2016. Like Mukund, Nagal too had the upper hand at one stage but eventually lost 3-6, 6-1, 3-6. Since that defeat, the man from Jhajjar had played seven more Davis Cup matches and he put that to good use in a 6-3, 6-3 win over Adam Moundir in the second singles rubber of the day.
Moundir, who had to play singles since Morocco’s top-ranked player Elliot Benchetrit had fitness issues, came out all guns blazing and hit as hard as he could. However, the 26-year-old Nagal played a balanced game, kept his defence solid and let his opponent self-destruct as Moundir kept making unforced errors while looking for winners pretty early into the rallies.
“I remember my first (Davis Cup) match - third set, 3-1, 40-15 up - and I ended up losing. I was maybe in worse condition than Mukund. Nobody is blaming anyone. We all understand how tough your first few matches for the country are and when ‘India’ is written on your back. The important part is how you learn from it and how fast you learn from it,” said Nagal.
The stage is nicely set for Rohan Bopanna, the 43-year-old veteran playing his 50th and final Davis Cup tie, who will partner Yuki Bhambri in the doubles rubber on Sunday followed by the first reverse singles in which Nagal will take on Dlimi. It could boil down to the second reverse singles match with a potential shot at redemption for Mukund but if he does not fully recover, the Lucknow crowd will see another test of nerves as Digvijaypratap Singh will then make his debut in the winner-takes-all battle against Moundir.
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