Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

The compelling intrigue of the Davis Cup

On paper, India didn't stand a chance against Spain, but the tie was still a riveting watch

Last weekend, Spain played and defeated India in the Davis Cup in New Delhi. While we Indian fans who turned up to watch were hopeful and pretty vocal during the matches, I think most of us knew that the Spanish team was just too strong for India.

Consider the talent they could count on:

• A multiple Grand Slam singles titles winner—and according to many tennis observers, the greatest player in history. That man Rafael Nadal, of course.

• The world No. 13—in fact, he has been as high as No. 3—who, in any other era, would have won at least a few Slams. That man David Ferrer, of course.

• Two doubles teams that have won major titles this year: Feliciano Lopez and Marc Lopez at the French Open, Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez at the Rio Olympics.

• Even a coach who is a Grand Slam singles winner. That woman Conchita Martinez, of course (winner at Wimbledon, 1994).

I mean, the real story of Spain’s strength might be in the players they did not bring to India: Nicolás Almagro, Roberto Bautista-Agut, Fernando Verdasco and others are all ranked in the top 100 in the world. In fact, Spain has nine players ranked in the top 50 and 11 in the top 100, the most for any country.

To do battle against this line-up, India had Saketh Myneni and Ramkumar Ramanathan playing singles. Superb players both, make no mistake—but Myneni is ranked around 140, Ramanathan around 210. In doubles, India paired Myneni with Leander Paes. Paes is an all-time great doubles player, make no mistake again—but he was playing with Myneni for the first time.

Even when Nadal dropped out of the singles, it was Feliciano Lopez who took his slot to play Ramanathan in the first match, and Lopez is ranked 26 in singles.

This difference between the teams eventually could not be wished away. In the singles, Ramanathan played Lopez hard and even won a set before losing; Ferrer was too fast, too physical and too accurate for Myneni. The next day, Paes and Myneni gave Lopez and Nadal a serious fight in an enthralling match, winning the first set and keeping it close the rest of the way.

Those three victories for Spain decided the contest.

Still, there was indeed hope for India all through. For there are enough tennis fans who think that the story of the Davis Cup is one of underdog countries regularly pulling off victories against powerhouses, and just maybe that could have happened in New Delhi.

Take just two such contests: in 1991, France beat a US team featuring Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras in Lyon to win the Cup. In 1974, India, with Vijay Amritraj and Jasjit Singh playing singles, won a famous Eastern Zone final against Australia in Calcutta.

In that 1974 tie, Singh played the first singles and beat Bob Giltinan 11-9, 9-11, 12-10, 8-6 (remember this was the era before tie-breakers). John Alexander then beat Vijay Amritraj, 14-12, 17-15, 6-8, 6-2. One match all going into the doubles, in which Anand and Vijay Amritraj prevailed after a huge struggle, 17-15, 6-8, 6-3, 16-18, 6-4. Alexander then pulled Australia even again, beating Singh 8-6, 6-4, 6-3. This left Vijay Amritraj to finish the job for India, which he did, beating Giltinan 6-1, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.

As is evident from the several long sets, this tie still holds the Cup record for most games played (327). It was a memorable victory for India—in fact, following it on the radio at the time was my own awakening to the joys of tennis and the Davis Cup.

But the reality was that this was an Australian team without Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Tony Roche, all Grand Slam winners. Alexander and Giltinan reached career highs in singles of No. 8 and No. 16, respectively, but they were simply not in the league of their more accomplished compatriots.

As exciting as the tie was, I think even the players knew that it would have gone very differently had one or two of the missing Australian stars made the trip to India. Their absence, coupled with the May heat of India, made an Indian victory more possible than it might otherwise have been—and a victory is what transpired.

Coming into the 1991 final, Agassi was already a three-time Slam finalist, including at the French Open that year. Sampras had a US Open title (beating Agassi in 1990) and was the hottest player on tour, the rising star of tennis—but new to the peculiar pressures and demands of the Davis Cup. They would play singles for the US.

Their doubles team of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso were three-time Slam winners, easily one of the top doubles combinations of the 1980s. Again, you could measure how strong this US team was by two men who were on the sidelines: Jim Courier and John McEnroe.

Up against them for France were the left-handers Guy Forget and Henri Leconte, period. That is, these two would play every match. Looking back from 25 years later, Forget and Leconte are perhaps best described as supremely talented underachievers.

Between them, they had one singles Slam final appearance, the 1988 French Open, which Leconte lost tamely. They had played doubles together a few times, though with nothing like the success Flach and Seguso had had. Nobody, with the possible exception of Yannick Noah, the French captain, gave them much of a chance to win the Cup.

Forget actually won the first set of his singles match against Agassi, but then was whistled off the court the rest of the way by Agassi’s splendid shotmaking. But after that, Leconte played the kind of genius tennis he was occasionally capable of, thrashing a visibly nervous young Sampras in straight sets. Leconte’s win left the teams tied at 1-1. But more importantly, it lifted the French.

In the doubles the next day, Forget and Leconte simply would not be denied, playing incandescent tennis to put away Flach and Seguso in four. That set the stage for Forget to produce arguably the best victory of his career, a spectacular four-set triumph over a still-nervous Sampras to send the adoring Lyon crowd into delirium.

Two unforgettable underdog Davis Cup moments, no doubt. But to me, these are exceptions. In general in the Davis Cup, the better team on paper usually wins—as Spain did against India last weekend.

But there’s a reason I used the phrase “peculiar demands and pressures" above. Playing on a team, playing for your country, playing before fans who cheer for their country—in the Davis Cup, these are realities that change the equation on court in subtle ways.

Many great players find their game goes awry in such circumstances—Sampras in 1991 is a case in point. Jimmy Connors is another, a man who never came to grips with the need to forget differences and play as a team.

And yet, those same circumstances also often lift lesser players: like Jasjit Singh in 1974, or Leconte and Forget in 1991. Players like these will likely point to their Davis Cup performances as the high points of their careers. Sometimes, those high points even carry their countries to victory.

For me, the charm of following the Davis Cup lies right there: not really in the rise of the underdog, but in the way it affects players one way or another. You see, India may have lost last weekend, but I know why watching those three matches was so utterly compelling.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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