After Friday’s singles defeat to David Ferrer, India’s Saketh Myneni was asked the difference between his regular competition and the world No 13 Spaniard.
“It’s about speed and consistency,” Myneni had said. “On the Challengers you might get away with a lot of things. But at a level like this, you have to take slightly less risk. With my aggressive style, there’s very little margin of error. One slip and you’re done.”
A day later, facing the reigning Olympic doubles champions, Myneni made that transition to the elite level for a while, if not for the entirety of three hours and 23 minutes. The Spanish team of Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4 to return to the Davis Cup World Group after two years.
Earlier in the week, Paes had alluded to the fact that a first-time combination with Myneni – “a big server and a natural ad-court player” -- would be more than serviceable.
And when the pairing worked, it came off brilliantly. Myneni served at an average of 183 kph – a 214 kph screamer the fastest serve of the match -- and Paes finished off the points with his signature deftness.
In fact, Paes was the first to concede serve (or a point on serve, after a whirlwind opening three games). The hosts struck back by breaking Marc in the seventh game, and Nadal two games later.
Riding high, India could have pocketed the second set after an early break. But the tides turned in the tenth game which saw Myneni fail to serve out the set. The only player to have not been broken till then, Myneni saved the first break point with an ace, but gave away the advantage with a misjudged drop shot. Spain took the set in the tiebreak and further applied the pressure to take an early break in the third to take the set.
Soon after, Myneni started lagging behind. His volleys became increasingly erratic. And while the speed of his serve remained constant, the consistency dwindled. His four aces – more than the other three combined – came in the first two sets.
Myneni, the youngest player on court at 28, often looked the slowest. The player, who has long struggled with spasms thanks to his high sweat rate, appeared to be struggling in the muggy conditions.
That’s when Paes showed his quality. Ever the showman, Paes came up with displays of flashy brilliance to keep both his partner and the crowd involved.
There were hopes of a heroic comeback after the Indians managed to break Nadal early in the fourth set. However, the hosts failed to consolidate the break. In the nine-minute-long seventh game, Myneni staved off three break points and conceded a fourth with a double fault. Spain got the break, and another off Paes to wrap up the fourth set.
After the match, Myneni said, “Playing with three outstanding players, it was going to be tough. But I fought my best.”
And fight he did. That he has the game to belong to the upper echelons has never been under question. But whether he has the physical and mental toughness to stay at that level remains to be seen.