The Indian Davis Cup team was left shaken after Vijayant Malik went flat on his back on account of cramps arising from excessive nervous tension. Korea led 2-0 after the opening day of the Davis Cup Asia/Oceania Group I tie. HT photo
Pressure. In Davis Cup that word morphs into a ghost that preys on the player out in the cauldron that the court becomes.
It eats away at confidence, it saps the vigour in the limbs. When the heat of the match turns up and you are representing the hopes of a billion, pressure can turn into a monster that rips the soul out of your game.
VM Ranjeet won nine points apiece in the first and second sets. He managed 10 in the third.
That explains the 1-6, 0-6, 1-6 drubbing by Korea's Min Hyeok Cho over the span of three sets that saw the first hammer blow to India's hopes in this tie.
The mere scoreline does scream out the basic that the Korean was playing at an exceptional level. He hardly made a mistake, hardly conceded any free points, and was dominant from the very first game in which he broke Ranjeet.
He went on to break him nine times. Ranjeet held just once in the third set.
With the slow court forcing players to work all the harder to earn a point, the battle was one of endurance and raw grit. It's not that Ranjeet does not have those qualities --- you don't become national men's champion unless you do.
But on Friday, Ranjeet wasn't just playing tennis, he also lugged along the baggage of the acrimonious face-off between eleven players and the federation in the run-up to this tie. India has been forced to field a third-string team after top players made themselves unavailable.
Ranjeet is arguably the best out of the lot that could have been tapped to form the team. But he proved unequal to the ask of shrugging off pressure and just playing his game freely.
Further, things became all the more crazy for him when the man across the net got into a rare groove that belied his lack of a single ranking point.
Cho has been on mandatory army service for the last two years and whatever he may have lost in ranking points, he has surely made up in hardy legs.
The ghost haunted Vijayant Malik in a more perverse manner. The rookie, who has never represented India in the men's, did not let his racquet get hobbled by the pressure.
His body however, had different plans. Malik dug deep to cling on to world No 321 Suk-young Jeong till he collapsed on account of a cramp that arose not out of lack of physical ability but from "too much nervous energy", as per a senior doctor in attendance.
Word from the bench has it that Malik's hand shook when he reached for his water bottle during changeovers.
The gutsy 22-year-old from Haryana did not display scattered nerves on court but the effort of keeping the demons away proved to be so onerous that eventually his body collapsed.
The cramp began in his right calf, immobilised his hamstring and then caught his back. It was game over: 4-6, 5-7, 0-3.
Just not prepared
"People have to understand that Vijayant was just not prepared to cope with the expectations and scrutiny that are part of playing for the flag. He made a valiant effort,” said the veteran Leander Paes.
India now counts on his experience in the company of Purav Raja to stay in this tie on Saturday.
While Paes is the lynchpin of this combo, Raja is also no babe in the doubles woods. However, with the court suiting their style of play, the Koreans will come out rampant astride the cushion of a 2-0 lead.
The Indians go in favourites but no one's taking any bets that they will dominate. Paes, 49 ties and counting, is unlikely to be bothered by the pressure. One can only hope debutant Raja too stays exorcised.