There’s a short passage of play, deep in the second set, deep in the hole Saketh Myneni finds himself in against David Ferrer, when he raises faint hopes of a comeback. Ferrer had won the first set easily, 6-1, and is ahead 5-0 in the second: an ongoing rout by any measure. Serving at 30-15, Ferrer is just two points from winning the set. He rushes the net behind a fiercely sliced backhand, seeking to knock off yet another crisp volley. But this time, Myneni lobs over him; even though Ferrer turns and races back, the ball lands inside the baseline and sails away from him. 30-30.
Myneni actually holds up a hand as if to say, “No hard feelings!” That’s Myneni, the man who invariably gives a thumbs-up to the ballkids who give him balls and his towel.
On the next point, Myneni swings hard at the ball, sending it screaming crosscourt. Ferrer hustles after it, grunting loudly — his trademark — with each step. But he can’t control his shot, which flies wide. 30-40. Ferrer double-faults next to hand Myneni the break and the game.
It’s still 5-1 in the set, but these handful of points seem to energize Myneni into fighting hard through the next game. It isn’t easy — which may be the whole point of playing Ferrer — but at least for us watching India fans, it’s sweeter for being that way.
Myneni comes in behind his serve on the first point, but loudly telegraphs a forehand drop-volley, which Ferrer reaches easily and puts beyond his reach. 0-15. A superb service winner and a classic serve-and-volley point take Myneni to 30-15. But he knocks an easy backhand into the net next and throws his head back in frustration, 30-30. Ferrer whacks a screaming return down the line for a winner and has set point, 30-40. The crowd — which, sadly, has been steadily thinning through the second set — shouts encouragement: “Come on Saki!” and “Jeetega bhai jeetega, India jeetega!” Myneni comes up with a strong serve that Ferrer cannot put back in play, to get back to deuce. Myneni’s shirt is wet against his back as they play a 11-shot rally of breathtakingly deep shots, baseline to baseline, that he wins by passing Ferrer who has worked his way to the net. Advantage India now, game point to Myneni. But Ferrer scampers swiftly left, winds up and simply nails a screaming inside-out forehand return off a pretty good Myneni serve, and it’s deuce again. “What’s it going to take,” Myneni must wonder, “to win at least my own service game off this man?” Myneni volleys well to win the next point, but hits long to lose the one after that. Deuce yet again. One more powerful Myneni serve that Ferrer returns high and wide. Another rally next has Ferrer again at the net, volleying twice — but then Myneni throws up a high lob, just slightly too high for Ferrer to reach easily, so he backpedals but has to attempt his overhead smash just that bit out of position, and he smashes it wide. Myneni wins the game.
The crowd roars. Ferrer still leads 5-2. But Myneni has held serve for the first time since the second game of the match, the first time in six tries. That has to encourage him as he walks to his seat, you’d think.
But he will win just one more game in the match. That one comes when he’s 0-4 down in the third set, a love game that he finishes off with a 170kmph second serve ace. That’s Myneni’s last gasp, really, a final show of defiance. Minutes later, Ferrer wins the match 6-1 6-2 6-1. He has been too fierce, too relentless, too focused for Myneni today.
But that’s Ferrer. My nephew, a serious tennis player himself, once wrote an essay about him with these lines: “Ferrer’s work ethic and never-say-die attitude [are] what make him my favourite tennis player. Almost everyone recognizes [him] as the hardest working athlete in the game.” Myneni has felt the full force of that work ethic today — Ferrer has fought for every point, gone after everything, thrown himself into every shot. It is a one-sided scoreline, but perhaps Myneni will eventually reflect that there’s no shame in losing to a player like that. It’s why he’s #13 in the world, after all.
Myneni was attempting, of course, to bring India level in the BNP Paribas Davis Cup World Group play-off. For in the first match of the tie, Feliciano Lopez had beaten Ramkumar Ramanathan 6-4 6-4 3-6 6-1.
That match was supposed to feature Rafael Nadal, but to the disappointment of the crowd, he withdrew with what his team described as a slight niggle in the wrist. Lopez is no mean player, though, and shows it with a solid, steady and often elegant display of tennis. His slices his one-handed backhand with venom, flashes it with power, and is an expert volleyer — perhaps the best of the four players on view today.
Through the match, Ramanathan stays within touching distance of Lopez without ever giving the impression that he can actually win. Under pressure, he sometimes seems to hurry his serves and shots, which hurts him. But he hits enough whistling winners to keep him in the match, each one accompanied by fist pumps and waving arms to encourage the crowd to make some noise. At 3-2 on serve in the third set, he takes a medical timeout to work on his hamstring — the journalist behind me shouts, sadly, “Oh no! Hammy! Oh no!” — but comes out of it with some renewed fire. With some remarkable retrieving, he breaks Lopez in the 8th game to lead 5-3. The crowd goes wild, he goes wild, he takes deep breaths to calm his nerves, and serves the set out.
But like with Myneni later, it’s his last gasp, really. Lopez reasserts his steady dominance in the fourth and wins it easily.
The packed stadium — packed at least through Ramanathan’s match — have had plenty of familiar names to write home about this evening: multiple Slam winners Nadal and Leander Paes on the sidelines, Lopez and Ferrer and Myneni who qualified for the US Open just last month, team captains Anand Amritraj and the 1994 Wimbledon singles champion Conchita Martinez who greets her players with a smile at each changeover.
But of course, most in the crowd came hoping to see India pull out at least one match. It wasn’t to be. Still, they saw at least a few spells of competitive, compelling tennis from all four players. India is still alive in this Davis Cup tie, if only barely. Paes and Myneni, pairing for the first time, have a huge ask: can they pull out Saturday’s doubles against Spain’s Lopezes, Feliciano and Marc (unrelated)? Can Paes lift Myneni out of the dispiriting beating Ferrer administered last night?
If he can and they do, Sunday’s matches retain some competitive interest. Otherwise, we fans will have to find what satisfaction we can in last gasps.