Davis Cup tie: Shorn of star power

All the four singles players from both countries are outside the ATP top-250, and it is indeed distinctly underwhelming.

The India and Uzbekistan teams pose in front of Vidhana Soudha during the draw ceremony on the eve of their Davis Cup tie in Bengaluru.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

The city seems to have wretched luck with the name Novak Djokovic. The last time the leafy environs of the KSLTA Stadium inside the pristine Cubbon Park played host to a Davis Cup tie, it was decked up to receive the Serbian superstar, only for him to pull out citing personal commitments and fatigue.

This time it was the turn of Djokovic’s most-recent Grand Slam slayer — there haven’t been many — Denis Istomin, who beat him at the Australian Open, to keep everyone on tenterhooks until he decided not to make the journey owing to a lingering foot injury.

As the Asia-Oceania Group I Round Two tie gets underway, shorn of star power, with India captain Mahesh Bhupathi choosing to overlook Leander Paes’ candidature also, and with all four singles players from both countries outside the ATP top-250, it is indeed distinctly underwhelming.

To be fair, Davis Cup has never been a top entertainment product. Its scheduling, format, terminologies all seem arcane. Only in recent years have the big stars really warmed up to it. But its allure is best captured in the words of the rank and file and the unheralded, for whom it is a golden opportunity to experience the limelight and become heroes for a week or two.

Order of play (3 p.m. start, Live DD Sports) Ramkumar Ramanathan vs. Temur Ismailov followed by Prajnesh Gunneswaran vs. Sanjar Fayziev.

“We are all getting a chance to be a part of the team and to play for the country,” Prajnesh Gunneswaran, India’s second singles player had told Sportstar recently. “It feels like we are part of something bigger.”

At the draw ceremony held at the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the state legislature of Karnataka, it emerged that Ramkumar Ramanathan, India's No.1 singles player, would open against Temur Ismailov first up on Friday.

This is Ramkumar’s fourth Davis Cup fixture and perhaps the most important, shouldering the responsibility in the absence of Yuki Bhambri. The 22-year-old, who often does his utmost to rev up the crowd, will hope for a performance to match his actions. For Ismailov on the other hand, this will be his first live rubber.

In the second singles Prajnesh will meet the Uzbek No. 1 Sanjar Fayziev. Of all the four singles players, the latter might have the best preparation as he is the only one who has past experience of having played five sets.

Against South Korea in February, he stretched Hyeon Chung, a player ranked as high as 51 and one who had just beaten the Croatian sensation Borna Coric at the Aircel Chennai Open, to five sets. Then a day later, he combined with Istomin to play five more sets in doubles.

“These things shouldn’t be an issue at all,” Bhupathi said, to much surprise. “To draw a parallel, fitness was never my forte but I’ve played 14 or 15 sets over a weekend in Davis Cup. The adrenaline kicks in, the team is behind you. Things just take shape.”

The weekend will show how but what might add to the intrigue is the fact that these sets of players have never met each other. Bhupathi's source of knowledge was “a lot of YouTube videos”. The closest the Uzbeks have come to acquainting themselves with the Indians was when Farrukh Dustov saw Ramkumar practice during a Futures tournament back home.

In the past, these two teams have split the last four ties between them but have remained unassailable at home. Bhupathi’s hope, in his first tie as captain, will be for that trend to continue.

Anand Amritraj on Bhupathi choosing Bopanna over Paes

"Rankings-wise it's the right thing to do," said former captain Anand Amritraj. "If it had been me, I would have picked him." 

"I feel both [Mahesh and Leander] played it wrong here. Leander should have been told earlier. I find it hard to believe that it [decision] was done on late Wednesday night. It should have been made earlier. And Leander too should have asked for clarity before landing."