Becoming India’s Davis Cup coach was not a question of if, but when for Zeeshan Ali.
Given the players’ standoff though, Ali, 43, admits this isn’t quite the kind of initiation he had on mind. “It’s not the best scenario you can ask for,” said Ali as he took a seat in the members’ area of the Calcutta South Club here.
“As coach or captain, you want your best players,” said Ali, the All India Tennis Association’s choice as Davis Cup coach, overruling the demand for Aditya Sachdeva by the eight rebel players who reasoned that Ali had never seen them play.
Ali agrees with Mahesh Bhupathi & Co. For 15 years, he was leading a comfortable life as a coach for the UAE tennis federation in Dubai, coaching kids at grassroots level and doubling up as training partners of the likes of Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova till the urge to come back and ‘do something for Indian tennis’ led him to shift base last year.
But Ali isn’t ready to accept he is out of the loop. “They don’t know me but I know them. Out of country doesn’t mean out of touch,” said Ali who now is based in Bangalore where he runs an academy. “If they don’t interact, they will not get to know me.”
“With all this year-round tennis, Davis Cup was the perfect opportunity to do that. I just hope that this matter is solved as soon as possible because right now, no one is a winner,” he said.
Now left with an inexperienced third-string side led by old buddy Leander Paes, Ali, however, isn’t in a mood to gripe.
“I doubt if these players have even played a five setter match. But I have to be optimistic. Rankings have never really mattered in the Davis Cup. Moreover we are playing at home,” he said.
With the squad assembling at the DLTA on January 26, Ali will hardly get five days before the tie against South Korea. “It’s impossible to teach the players anything new at such short notice. What’s important is the tactical part. Motivation isn’t an issue for any player representing his nation. Experience is. That’s where Leander and I should be of help,” he said.
“The concept of coaching has changed,” he said. “When I couldn’t move my feet, dad (former Davis Cup captain and coach Akhtar Ali) used to hit them with his racket. You can’t do it now. Kids nowadays treat you as equals. Respect doesn’t come easily. You have to earn it,” said Ali who wants to continue coaching players at the grassroots.
“But I also want to do it at the top level. I know I’m good enough.”