And then there was snow. You could forgive India’s Davis Cup players to swap tennis racquets for mobile phones to capture videos as the heavens opened up and gently peppered the Tianjin Tennis Center with snowflakes. Practice had been disrupted, but that was just another addition to the problems the travelling team faced ahead of the second round zonal tie against hosts China.
Earlier in the week, a part of the squad had to switch hotels when they reached China, while the youngest member, Sumit Nagal struggled to get his visa. But once the entire team finally assembled in Tianjin, the weather proved to be another hurdle. The port-city in northeastern China usually experiences temperatures around 15-20 degree Celsius in early April. On Wednesday, it touched 0.
“The temperature is freezing,” says captain Mahesh Bhupathi. “We had to move indoors in the afternoon (Wednesday) since there were snowflakes on court. I am not sure which team this suits, but personally, I believe this is very unhealthy.” On paper, the Indian team, barring singles player Prajnesh Gunneswaran, is a much higher ranked outfit than their hosts. The Davis Cup’s experimental format though, in which ties are played as best-of-three set matches and are concluded in two days, doesn’t work in India’s favour.
“Our players have played a certain amount of five-set matches before,” says team coach Zeeshan Ali. “So that’s an advantage for us if we’re playing a team like China.”
Now with three-set matches, away in cold conditions, that too without the injured Yuki Bhambri – the country’s highest ranked singles player – the tie may have become level. “Without Yuki, things have definitely evened out,” says SP Misra, chairman of the AITA selection committee. “In his present form, we were hoping he could take two singles matches. But this is a chance for Ramkumar (Ramanthan), who has also been playing well, to come out and prove that he too is a big player.”
According to the draw ceremony on Thursday morning, Ramkumar is slated to play Chinese ‘wonderkid’ Yibing Wu in the opening rubber, followed by China’s highest ranked player Ze Zhang (247) taking on Sumit Nagal, who will be playing his first live rubber.
On the second day, higher ranked doubles veterans Rohan Bopanna (19) and Leander Paes (45) will take on Di Wu (187) and Mao-Xin Gong (257).
For Misra though, it’s crucial that Ramkumar got the first match. “It’s a favourable draw for us that Ramkumar plays the first match,” he says. “He’s beaten some big player in the past, but the responsibility is on him to get the first win.”
Ranked at a career high 132, Ramkumar pulled off the biggest win of his career last June when he upset then world no 8 Dominic Thiem at the Antalya Open. Later on, the 23-year-old reached the second round of the Cincinnati Masters – although he did benefit from a Lucky Loser entry – and reached the final of three Challenger events.
On Friday, the Chennai-lad will lead the Indian charge and will be expected to give them a winning start, especially since Nagal is still untested in a live Davis Cup rubber. The 20-year-old played his first and only Davis Cup match in a World Group Playoff tie in 2016 against Spain, in an inconsequential loss to doubles-specialist Marc Lopez.
Since then, the 2015 Junior Wimbledon doubles champion has improved in both rank (now at 213) and calibre, having won the $100,000 Bangalore Challenger. He does however, have the tendency of being temperamental if a crucial point doesn’t go his way.
“If Ram wins, it will ease the pressure on Sumit, who then won’t have things to worry about, and he can play his game,” Misra says. “If Ram loses, then there will be a lot of tension.”
The doubles tie on the second day though is the one where India is clearly the favourite, despite the clashing characters involved. During the selection phase, the AITA made clear that “any issues between the players had to be settled in a nice manner in the interest of the nation between themselves.”
The statement was a clear hint at the animosity that has existed between Paes and Bopanna because of team selections in recent years. Against China, India has put up it’s strongest doubles team. For Paes, there’s also a world record at stake as he’s currently tied with Italian legend Nicola Pietrangeli with 42 doubles wins in the Davis Cup.
Conditions in Tianjin are far from favourable. “The courts are slow and low bouncing, but the balls are travelling well through the air,” says Bhupathi, who sums up India’s chances this weekend. “I think the doubles point is the only one we can bank on. For the other two points, we will need to fight like hell.”