The emergence of Yuki Bhambri as India's next singles player of note makes this Asia-Oceania Davis Cup tie, against Uzbekistan, of crucial importance.
The 19-year-old achieved a career-high of 263 on the international men's ranking list a few weeks ago. For one so young, Yuki shoulders a mature tennis head just as he now looks to shoulder the hopes of a nation. The heat of the latter bit is what makes Davis Cup a pressure cooker situation. The national tennis federation has done well to send his long-time coach and mentor Aditya Sachdeva along to help ease him into the squad.Afterall, even though he made a dream debut against South Africa in 2009 by claiming his dead rubber against the much-higher ranked Izak Van Der Merwe, Yuki's first Cup experience was soured by a few seniors who tried to rag him.
It's a tradition in the squad that each inductee does a naked jig in the dressing room to raucous hoots and applause. While it's usually just an ice-breaker and great fun, in this particular instance, Yuki had little respect for the instigator (a member of the support staff) and refused to play along. While many labelled it as arrogance, others like Leander Paes, felt that the attitude he showed augurs well for his future as a tennis professional. In the heat of battle, it is attitude alone that counts. It's that X factor which separates the champions from the chaff. Yuki now has to prove that he has what it takes when the fate of a tie hangs onto the strum of his racquet strings.
Not really the regular ask of a 19-year-old; but then when you play for the country you better grow up quick or you join the long list of dead hopes that have made guest appearances in the squad but never graduated to playing the lead role. The difference between being anextra or the lead player can often hinge upon one big moment. For Yuki, the first opportunity comes this Friday.
The spotlight is no less focused on 24-year-old Sanam Singh, who last month notched up three Futures singles titles on the trot - this writer can't recall any other Indian player to have managed that feat of late. As of now, Sanam is suffering from a mild fever and had a short 45-min training session on Wednesday.
However, he is confident that he will be fit to go by Friday. Sanam has earned his spurs on the American collegiate circuit and came out of nowhere to claim the Asian Games doubles gold with Somdev Devvarman at the 2010 Asian Games. He has shown the heart for a big fight but, at five feet eight inches, he has yet to prove if he is tall enough to book a permanent slot in the squad when Devvarman returns from injury.
Likely to be pitted against Denis Istomin - world No 43, and Uzbekistan No 1 - not too many in the team are giving him a chance. But then all great stories in sport are about prevailing against the odds.
Uzbekistan chose to hold the tie in this north-eastern corner of the country on an indoor clay court that has been constructed atop a basketball ground. The India team made a five hour bone-rattling road journey to find a court that does not bounce true and an arena that's humid and sultry as the air conditioning is off. But then it's like just another day in Davis Cup where the host will use every trick in the book to eke whatever little advantage possible.