India was handed a lifeline on Tuesday as Uzbekistan's Denis Istomin pulled out of the Davis Cup with a left foot injury.
Petr Lebed: ‘We have four options if Istomin is ruled out’
The 30-year-old has been struggling with an injury to his left foot for a while now and hadn't travelled to India with the rest of the squad on Saturday. After a final round of tests in Tashkent on Tuesday, the World No. 71 was deemed unfit for the tie.
Istomin, who memorably beat Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, has been the Uzbek mainstay in recent years. So much so that he almost always played both the singles and the doubles rubbers and that too to pretty good effect.
Uzbekistan, like India, has been in the World Group play-off in each of the past three years. A failure to win against India will end its chances of gaining another shot at the World Group.
“When he [Istomin] said he would stay back for the tests, I had a feeling he would not turn up at all,” said Uzbekistan captain Petr Lebed. “So I had a back-up plan in place. Now, with two days left, it gives me enough time to work on who plays singles and doubles.”
Under normal circumstances, the seasoned Farruk Dustov, who like Istomin has often played on all three days, would have been expected to hold forte. But the 30-year-old, a former top-100 player, has been out of competition for six months.
Even though he said that he had recovered well enough to figure on all three days, it's unlikely the captain might trust him to do that. In fact, in his last Davis Cup tie, the World Group playoff against Switzerland in September 2016, Dustov figured only in the doubles.
So in singles, Lebed is likely to rely on two 22-year-olds in Sanjar Fayziev (ranked 376) and Temur Ismailov (ranked 406), both ranked below the three Indian singles specialists – Ramkumar Ramanathan, Prajnesh Gunneswaran and N. Sriram Balaji. Fayziev has thus far played two live rubbers and one dead rubber, but has been winless. Ismailov is yet to figure in a high-profile match and has lost all three of his matches.
India still cautious
India coach Zeeshan Ali though sought to remain cautious.
“With Istomin not coming, it's definitely good for us,” he Zeeshan. “But we need to consider that we are also not playing with two of our best singles players [Yuki Bhambri and Saketh Myneni]. So it's more balanced and even and matches are still going to be very very tough.”
The breaking up of the regular, and fairly successful, doubles pair of Istomin and Dustov, might give India a slight breather, but Zeeshan downplayed it.
“We have still not decided our doubles team, regardless of Istomin coming or not,” Zeeshan said. “Leander [Paes] will practise on Wednesday. We will then have a team meeting – myself, Leander and Mahesh [Bhupathi] and then decide.”