Uzbekistan’s preparations hit a damp patch, literally and metaphorically, on Tuesday.
The day had been sultry and by the time the Uzbek team took to the courts for their evening training session at the KSLTA Stadium in Bengaluru, the skies had opened up. Only half an hour earlier, their leading player, Denis Istomin, had officially pulled out of the Davis Cup Asia Oceania Group I round 2 tie against India, to be held from Friday.
“Good,” was India captain Mahesh Bhupathi’s reaction when he heard of Istomin’s withdrawal due to a left heel injury.
He is known to be a man of few words, but even by Bhupathi’s standards this was an understatement. For Istomin had been the biggest concern for India as Bhupathi, the holder of 12 Grand Slam titles, prepared for his stint as Davis Cup captain.
Ranked 71, Istomin was the spearhead of the young Uzbek side. Not only had the 30-year-old single-handedly won ties for his team, he had shocked the tennis circuit in January by defeating defending champion Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open.
Istomin has a win-loss record of 45-26 in the Davis Cup and since his debut in 2005, had not missed a single tie for Uzbekistan—until now.
Davis Cup ties are always tense, but at least there would be no baptism by fire for Bhupathi. The captain’s debut had already been made more difficult when India’s most reliable singles player, Yuki Bhambri, was forced out of the tie by a knee injury.
“We are not playing with one of our top two players right now,” said India coach Zeeshan Ali. “So it’s a little more even now—but the tie will still be tough.”
In the four ties they have played, India and Uzbekistan have won two each but never away from home.
“The earlier ties (in India) were played on grass, which is not favourite surface for our players,” wrote Uzbekistan captain Petr Lebed on email. “But the last time (2008, in New Delhi) was close and we lost in a final fifth rubber.”
This generation of Indian players is not as proficient on grass, though this, coupled with the heat, was India’s go-to strategy in home ties till the late 2000s. They have instead chosen the hard courts of Bengaluru for the tie.
With a spot for World Group play-offs at stake, the Indians are hoping the high bounce that comes with Bengaluru’s altitude will throw off the visitors. In the last Davis Cup tie in February, India had opted for a similar surface in Pune and won 4-1 over New Zealand.
“Altitude is okay for our team,” maintains Lebed. “Some of our players have played in Bengaluru before, so it is not going to be a problem for us.”
With Istomin out, it will be left to the fading Farrukh Dustov and young guns Sanjar Fayziev, Temur Ismailov and Jurabek Karimov to come good. Karimov had come to India as a reserve and has now been drafted into the team. Just 18 years old, Karimov is known as a prodigy in his home country and made the Australian Open boys’ final in 2016.
“We are not too worried,” says Uzbekistan team manager Valera Lim. “Karimov might just be the ace up our sleeves.”
For India, it will now come down to striking the right team balance. In his first stab at selection, Bhupathi had decided to keep both doubles specialists—Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna—on the reserves bench, citing their disappointing form as the reason.
Bhambri’s injury has reduced his options. By the time you read this, either Paes or Bopanna, or both, could be part of the playing four. The teams can be changed till an hour before the draw ceremony, which will take place today morning.
With both the captain and coach preferring a combination of three singles players plus one doubles player, it is likely that Prajnesh Gunneswaran and N. Sriram Balaji will make their Davis Cup debuts. The retirement of Somdev Devvarman and injuries to Bhambri and Saketh Myneni may have fast-tracked their entry into the Indian side but the two have had good results on the Futures tour recently.
Balaji, who has won four doubles and two titles at the ITF Futures event, is the team’s most versatile player. He is expected to play the doubles and step in for singles if required. Meanwhile, left-handed Gunneswaran and India’s top-ranked player, Ramkumar Ramanathan, are likely to carry out singles duties.
That leaves Bhupathi with the tough choice of friend-turned-foe Paes and Bopanna. Both doubles players have struggled for form on the ATP tour this year.
Bopanna, 37, started the year by winning the ATP Chennai Open—but it has been downhill since. Paes, at 43, is finally showing signs of slowing down. In the previous tie against New Zealand, playing with Vishnu Vardhan, he looked woefully out of touch and lost the doubles rubber. His best result on the ATP tour so far this year has been a semi-final.
Coming into the tie against Uzbekistan, however, he showed sparks of revival, winning the doubles title at the ATP Challenger event in Leon, Mexico, on Saturday. He is still chasing the record for the most number of doubles wins in the Davis Cup (43).
While doubles has always been India’s strong suit in Cup ties, the team is now struggling for the right combination, with the two leading doubles players in the country not seeing eye to eye most of the time.
Bhupathi believes it’s time to shift the focus from doubles. “We (Leander and Mahesh) won 22 in a row so it doesn’t mean the legacy is going to continue,” he said. “The Davis Cup is about winning three points, not one. There’s a lot of talk about doubles which has been going on for weeks but our focus is to win three points.”
More than most, Bhupathi knows what a bone of contention doubles selection can be. Whatever the names on the team sheet, there is bound to be some friction; he can only hope it will not flare up into another controversy.
Bhupathi’s first act as a captain might well be just keeping the peace.
Team nominations (rankings)
India: Ramkumar Ramanathan (singles, 235), Prajnesh Gunneswaran (singles, 287), N. Sriram Balaji (singles, 306; doubles, 223), Rohan Bopanna (doubles, 24), Leander Paes (doubles, 53).
Uzbekistan: Sanjar Fayziev (376), Temur Ismailov (406), Farrukh Dustov (737), Jurabek Karimov (doubles 646).