The doubles format in tennis is often called the ‘hidden jewel’. It is fast and entertaining, and a great tool to popularise the sport. Not for India, though. For long, it was the only jewel. For a country which has rarely had a top-50 singles player, lining up champion doubles outfits gave it an identity.
In the last three years, the country seems to have lost this, winning only one rubber of consequence — against Serbia in the World Group play-off here in 2014 with Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes teaming up.
The most painful of the defeats came when Paes and Bopanna lost in straight sets to the Czech Republic in 2015, a match the previous captain Anand Amritraj decribed as the worst of his tenure.
In the last six ties, India has used four different combinations. As India now gears up to play Uzbekistan in the Asia-Oceania Group-I tie here from Friday, it might try a fifth with Sriram Balaji teaming up with either Paes or Bopanna.
But the aura of invincibility which characterised Indian doubles is a thing of the past.
“We’ve always fielded what we thought was our best pair,” Bhupathi said on Tuesday. “You win some and you lose some. We (Leander and Mahesh) won 22 in a row. So it doesn’t mean the legacy is going to continue [forever].”
In fairness, this sort of legacy has long been dead in most countries. As Bhupathi noted, there has been a decline of specialist doubles players in general. Apart from the Bryan brothers, the French pair of Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert and the Brazilian duo of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares, not many come to mind.
This decline has instead been accompanied by a shift towards the four singles rubbers rather than the one doubles.
The Bryan brothers’ retirement from Davis Cup has, in fact, made the US team more dangerous. It has four solid singles players in Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Sam Querrey and John Isner. Two of the three rounds of Cup ties are played the week after Grand Slam tournaments. Having more than two singles players is a god-send in such a situation.
When Bhupathi said “the Davis Cup is about winning three points, not one,” he was only reflecting the general trend. But India does not have even one player in the singles top-100.
What it means is that none of the players who will play the singles has the experience of best-of-five-set matches. So the captain is forced to field three singles specialists, not as a show of strength but as a safety measure, for in the event of an injury to any player, it needs a back-up.
Even if India had had a world-beating doubles team, it could not possibly take to the court.
“Once the level (standard of competition) declines past a point, every tennis player is capable of playing doubles,” Bhupathi said. “That’s the reason we are still uncertain on who’s playing doubles.”
On Wednesday, as the trio of Paes, Bopanna and Balaji tried all three combinations, Uzbekistan’s Farrukh Dustov was in the audience.
“Will Paes play?” he was asked. “Yes, I think so,” he replied. “Otherwise why else would he be here?”
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