India’s Davis Cup story: slip, sliding away

  • Since 2018, India have beaten only Pakistan and China and change isn’t around the corner.
Rohan Bopanna (L) and Divij Sharan. (Getty) PREMIUM
Rohan Bopanna (L) and Divij Sharan. (Getty)
Updated on Sep 29, 2021 09:00 PM IST
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ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai

Exactly 11 years to the day India lost to Finland in the Davis Cup tie on September 19, Indian tennis had witnessed a stunning leap into the elite. Somdev Devvarman and Rohan Bopanna scripted a turnaround from 0-2 down against Brazil in Chennai by winning their reverse singles rubbers against higher-ranked players after Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi did their doubles thing to enter the cream of World Group teams in the event. 

Such sparks in Davis Cup have fizzled out from Indian tennis. 

Earlier this month, India lost 1-3 in their World Group 1 contest against Finland in Espoo. It was a tricky away tie on the hard indoor courts temporarily laid over an ice hockey rink, but certainly not beyond the reach of an Indian team comprising 167th-ranked Prajnesh Gunneswaran, world No. 192 Ramkumar Ramanathan and the Asian Games gold-winning doubles pair of Bopanna and Divij Sharan. The Finns had a stronger and higher-ranked doubles combo, one singles player in the top-100 and the other, Otto Virtanen, ranked 424th in the world. Prajnesh, coming off a wrist injury, lost to Virtanen to begin the tie and the Indians found no way back from there (the lone win came in the inconsequential match). India will now have to play in the Group 1 Playoffs next year; a win there would merely keep them in the second tier of an event in which the country has glittering individual records and a glorious history of reaching three finals. 

Since 2018, India have not beaten an opponent other than Pakistan and China. Even against the latter, it needed the Bopanna-Paes duo to light the comeback fire after Ramkumar and Sumit Nagal lost to lower-ranked players in their singles opener. It’s been six years since an Indian singles player has beaten a higher-ranked opponent in Davis Cup; Devvarman was the last to do so when the then 164th-ranked Indian beat world No. 40 Czech Jiri Vesely in 2015. Even the odd upsets are a thing of the past, with India increasingly being at the receiving end of it in recent times. 

“It’s not the fact that we’re failing, it’s how we’re failing that is worrisome and it has always been worrisome ever since I can remember,” said Devvarman. “If we continue doing things this way, it’s actually silly of us to think that we’re going to get results.” 

The Indian tennis ecosystem has always been on treacherous territory, with players and the All India Tennis Association (AITA) often at loggerheads. The players have had to revolt; the federation has had to crack the whip. The relationship has seldom seen happy days. “It’s not like the federation has had a major impact on the way professional tennis is run in the country. It’s coming straight from experience,” said Devvarman, whose almost decade-long pro career saw him rise to 62nd in the world rankings. 

The 36-year-old - who has ventured into the coaching world at the Nensel Academy in Germany where Nagal too trains - cited the example of the Belgian tennis federation, which has roped in former top-50 pro Steve Darcis to work with a bunch of upcoming players. “It shows you that the Belgian tennis federation cares for their next generation,” he said. 

In India, the current generation itself is drifting away. Before the Finland tie, Nagal pulled out citing a hip injury that, according to a doctor, could aggravate by playing on hard courts even as he continued competing on the clay courts on the ATP Challenger Tour. Mukund Sasikumar, India's fourth-highest ranked singles player at 390th, was approached to replace him. The 24-year-old turned it down, saying he would rather focus on playing tournaments and collecting ranking points on the professional tour. 

The players couldn’t care less about turning up for Davis Cup on the federation’s call. The federation couldn’t care less about making it more appealing and attractive for the player. The communication gap couldn’t be wider. 

“Right now, Mukund feels that it’s a bigger loss for him to go there (Davis Cup). What kind of leadership must we have for that to happen? If I was part of that team, the first thing would be to have constant conversations with the players throughout the year. And then, if one of the young guys says he is not coming, three senior members (will) call him and say, ‘Listen, this is the situation and we need you here’. Get him to change his mind and the situation is dealt with,” said Devvarman. 

The leadership group currently includes coach Zeeshan Ali and captain Rohit Rajpal, who was brought into the role after Bhupathi was sacked by AITA in 2019, a move which left many players unhappy. 

Rajpal said the need of the hour is to go back to the drawing board and look at the next set of players. “Even in doubles, I was talking to Rohan. The fact that he is having to play at 40 means the younger guys are not pushing him enough. So we need to go back to the drawing board and look at the next bunch of guys behind them and see how we can regroup and come back,” he said after the Finland tie. 

Few takers for singles

The bigger problem lies elsewhere. Four of the five points on offer in a Davis Cup tie comes from singles, where results have steadily slid south. The likes of Prajnesh (3-6 singles win-loss record in Davis Cup), Ramkumar (8-9) and Nagal (2-3) have often delivered fights but not as many victories over the past few years in the battles that really matter. 

“We need to have singles players coming out and winning,” said Bopanna, the current doubles world No. 46 who delivered 10 singles victories in Davis Cup in the past. “It’s not about having one player in the top-50 or top-100. It’s about having a good structure in India, a good junior system, a good programme for the younger generation to follow. You can’t do it on your own, especially in tennis which is such an expensive sport. Not only the player, the federation, the government…everyone has to be hand in hand to make a difference. That’s when we can say, ‘OK, this was a team effort but it’s still not working’. Right now, it’s an individual effort.” 

For the Finland tie, Bopanna partnered Ramkumar. The 26-year-old Chennai lad has been one of the brighter talents from the country in singles and has shown glimpses of it - like beating Dominic Thiem in 2017 and reaching the ATP Newport final in 2018 - but consistency, top-100 ranking spot and a Grand Slam singles entry has eluded him. Most of Ramkumar’s recent success has come in doubles, including winning a Challenger in Cassis, France, with N Sriram Balaji heading into the Finland tie and making his Slam debut at Wimbledon this year with Ankita Raina in mixed doubles. 

Sliding gradually towards doubles has been a path treaded by many Indian pros, especially since the Paes-Bhupathi pairing; Sania Mirza and Bopanna made it cooler with plenty of silverware to flaunt. But it comes with the risk of further trimming the singles cupboard, which isn’t exactly fighting for space anyway.

Devvarman, however, reckoned there was nothing “right or wrong or good or bad” in individuals making professional choices which they believe are best suited for their career. “People tend to switch to doubles for pretty specific reasons. The likes of Ram still have their teeth in singles. But they’re finding that they’re getting more success in doubles and also making more money,” he said. 

“What people also don’t realise is that after a certain point, playing Wimbledon is a lot more fun than playing Challengers. So if you have an opportunity to play (doubles) at Wimbledon, win a few matches…who knows what can happen,” said Devvarman. 

For now, though, there appears to be no light at the end of a long tunnel for India seeking a pathway to the upper echelons of Davis Cup again - player-pool wise, administrative issues wise, players-officials differences wise, leadership wise, communication wise, growth structure wise. 

“It needs an open-ended conversation. But if you and I have a conversation and you say you’ll do it, and five months later when we meet you say you’ll do it again, but it actually never really happens, then what’s the point of talking?” said Devvarman. 

I don’t see a change,” he added. “Our main competition right now is ourselves. We’re our biggest enemy. And the first thing is to correct that.”

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Monday, December 06, 2021