If history is anything to go by, India should be cruising past China in their Davis Cup Asia Oceania Group I second round this weekend. The Indian Davis Cup team has made the World Group Playoff every time since 2014, has a 3-0 record against China, and looks set to dominate their Asian counterparts.
But two things seem to have thrown a spanner in the works: India’s top-ranked player, Yuki Bhambri, pulled out of the tie due to injury last week; and the new format will see the teams competing in best-of-three sets, instead of five.
“Yuki pulling out is a big setback for us," said India coach Zeeshan Ali before the team left for China. “The form he was in almost guaranteed us the two singles points. But we will now start as the underdogs."
Bhambri, ranked 105, had possibly the best month of his career on the US hard courts, as he qualified for the Indian Wells and Miami Masters. He also won two rounds at Indian Wells, beating No.8 seed Lucas Pouille en route, and backed this up by qualifying for, and winning, a round at the Miami Masters. But with his injury-prone body suffering a minor abdominal tear, the singles event promises to be an exercise in trial and error.
The feisty Ramkumar Ramanathan will be India’s highest-ranked player at 132, but it will be a toss-up between Sumit Nagal (213) and Prajnesh Gunneswaran (263) for the second singles spot. Both players have limited Davis Cup experience and are in the same ranking bracket as the Chinese. Nagal, though, is in better form and defeated former top-20 player Marcel Granollers of Spain at a Challenger event in Marbella, Spain, last week.
None of the Chinese players are ranked in the top 200. Ze Zhang is 247, while Di Wu is 186. But teenager Yibing Wu (332) could be the wild card. The 18-year-old, heralded as the future of Chinese tennis, won the junior US Open in 2017 and was the hitting partner for Roger Federer during the ATP World Tour Finals in November in London. The youngster has played two Davis Cup singles matches and won both.
With the Davis Cup committee experimenting with the new format, the zonal ties have also been reduced from three days to two, with all five rubbers being played in best-of-three formats. It significantly levels the playing field, giving the smaller tennis countries a better chance at beating higher-ranked opponents.
“It doesn’t work in our favour," added former Davis Cup player Ali. “Our players, Yuki and Ram, have played a lot more five-set matches as compared to the other players in the zone. Also, China have been exposed to the new format (in their first-round tie against New Zealand in February), but it is completely new for us."
The new rules also allow teams to field five players, instead of four. That alteration seems to have quietened the perennial doubles controversy in the country, with the All India Tennis Association (Aita) naming both Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes in the playing five.
The two have a well-documented history, and Bopanna had expressed reservations about teaming up with Paes again. However, Aita, in a statement on the team selection, made its position clear: “Any issues between the players have to be settled in a nice manner, in the interest of the nation, between themselves."
The China tie, to be played on outdoor hard courts in Tianjin, will thus give Paes another chance to create a record for the most doubles wins in the Davis Cup. He has been tied with Italy’s Nicola Pietrangeli at 42 wins apiece for quite some time now. In April last year, with Mahesh Bhupathi making his debut as India’s non-playing captain, Paes was excluded from the team, on form, for the first time in 27 years before the two Indian doubles legends once again engaged in a verbal duel.
But given the uncertainty hanging over the singles rubbers, the doubles point has become crucial once again. It will be down to whether Paes and Bopanna can finally settle into a rhythm and use their experience to pull the team out of any potential trouble.