As tempting as it is to bill the India versus Spain Davis Cup tie a David versus Goliath contest, it could be wildly misleading because, as legend has it, little David did slay the mighty Goliath.
But there is little hope that India will be able to display such heroism and beat the odds against Spain. “It is the toughest challenge this team has faced,” says Zeeshan Ali, India coach of the Davis Cup World Group play-off tie, which will be held in New Delhi from 16-18 September.
“In the last few years, we have had a few difficult home matches in the play-offs, like Serbia in 2014 and the Czech (Republic) last year. But a full-strength Spain is a very tough proposition,” says Ali.
The fact is, at this level, India will always be punching above their weight. With the fit-and-firing again Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer throwing themselves into the ring, India have been able to summon mainly a team of rookies.
Two of India’s top players, Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri, are out of commission, while doubles specialist Rohan Bopanna pulled out last week after a knee injury. Saketh Myneni and Ramkumar Ramanathan, both of whom made their Davis Cup singles debut against Korea in July, will take on the singles challenge, and 19-year-old (reserve player) Sumit Nagal might partner with 43-year-old Leander Paes in the doubles.
Also read: Leander Paes eyes world record in Davis Cup
This league of elite tennis-playing nations can be hostile. The World Group allows only the top 16 countries, and the last time India made the cut was in 2011. With the team desperately lacking in top singles players, they haven’t been able to clear the play-offs hurdle since.
Meanwhile, Spain have gone on to build an armada in men’s tennis. The country has the maximum number of players—11—in the top 100 rankings of the ATP World Tour. They have been one of the most successful teams in the world in the past few years, having won the Davis Cup title five times (2000, 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2011), and finished runners-up twice, in 2003 and 2012.
Having dropped out of the World Group in 2014, they are on a mission to regain their place among the elite. “We are taking this tie very seriously; for us it’s important to return to the World Group and we are coming with a great team to try and do that,” says Spain captain and former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martínez on email.
“Playing away is always tough because the home team plays with the advantage of the conditions they want. I’m sure both the (Indian) singles players are going to play with a lot of confidence against the Spanish players; playing at home is a great opportunity for them,” she says. Nadal echoed her motivation when the players arrived in New Delhi on Monday.
The fact that India did not go with their preferred surface—grass courts with unpredictable bounce that sometimes go a long way in levelling the playing field—and have chosen to play the matches in the evening, under lights, taking away the heat-and-humidity factor which could have been an advantage, is proof enough that they have accepted their fate. But the Indian team is also seeing it as an opportunity. They can play with a freedom that professional tennis, and playing for the country in a Davis Cup tie, rarely affords.
“It’s always exciting to test yourself against the best of players,” says Myneni on the phone. He is India’s No.1 player, with a world ranking of 137. The 6ft, 4 inches player serves with gumption, and has hit the best stretch of his pro career so far, qualifying for his first Grand Slam main draw at the recently ended US Open. He also stretched then world No. 49 Jiri Vesely to the brink, but a bout of cramps in the fifth set saw him lose the first round 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 2-6, 5-7.
“Playing at a major goes a long way to boost your confidence,” says Myneni. “The main draw of any Grand Slam is where the big guys play. You have to constantly push yourself to move up. We are underdogs in the tie against Spain, but that means no one expects us to win. We can play to our strengths and see how we match up.”
While Myneni has played on the pro circuit long enough to be humbled by the opportunity to go up against the “mighty legends” Nadal and Ferrer, in Ramanathan India have an irreverent youngster who swings hard at everything.
The Tamil Nadu lad’s first taste of stardom came at the Chennai Open in 2014, when he beat Devvarman, India’s top player at the time. Ramanathan, 21, is a raw talent, yet to find direction and range.
“We have all seen Nadal and Ferrer through the years, we know how they play,” says Myneni. “But they don’t know what to expect from the Indian players.”
With the All India Tennis Association giving free entry to fans, the atmosphere at the floodlit RK Khanna stadium in the Capital promises to be electric. The hosts have set up the stage more as a spectacle, with Nadal, rather than any of their own, getting top billing. It’s up to India to turn it into a contest.
India: Saketh Myneni (world ranking No.137), Ramkumar Ramanathan (203), Sumit Nagal (693, in doubles), Leander Paes (63, in doubles). Non-playing captain: Anand Amritraj.
Spain: Rafael Nadal (4), David Ferrer (13), Marc López (15, in doubles), Feliciano López (13, in doubles). Non-playing captain: Conchita Martinez.