IMAGE: Rohan Bopanna will be playing in his final Davis Cup. Photograph: Antonio Bronic/Reuters
Hauling itself up from World Group II should not be a complicated task for India when it takes on an unostentatious Morocco in the home tie, which will be more of a celebration of Rohan Bopanna’s Davis Cup career, which will come to a halt after 21 years on Sunday.
Lack of singles players who could challenge the big boys of the ATP circuit, coupled with defeats in winnable matches, has hurt the Indian Davis Cup team badly in the last few years in this team tournament, but relegation to World Group II was a new low the Indian team hit in February.
It was for the first time since the new format was launched in 2019 that the Indians dropped to this level.
Much has changed since India last played in the Davis Cup tie in March, when it lost 2-3 to Denmark.
Indian tennis has hardly had any memorable moments this season until Bopanna reached the US Open final last week.
It’s not just the lack of on-court results in singles; off-court, the country also felt the disappointment of losing its only ATP 250 event.
IMAGE: India captain Rohit Rajpal with Morocco captain Mehdi Tahiri. Photograph: Media Release/AITA
Yuki Bhambri, one of the finest players India has seen, has stopped playing the singles format. Ramkumar Ramanathan has dropped out of even the top-550 and is languishing at number 570.
Such has been his plight this season that the Chennai player has made 17 first-round exits at different tournaments, including the lowest rung, the ITF Futures level.
It’s not surprising that skipper Rohit Rajpal has not included Ramkumar in the lineup, though he remains a part of the squad to help train the players.
AT 43, BOPANNA STILL PLAYING SOLID TENNIS
But Bopanna is still playing some solid tennis in the doubles format.
At 43, he still is one of the most powerful servers on the circuit. His strokes still have sting, and he can still pull off those stunning passing winners from difficult angles or while running on flanks.
It would have been ideal if he had got his farewell tie where he wanted — in Bengaluru — but he still has a chance to bid adieu to the Davis Cup before the home fans.
In 32 ties played since making his debut in 2002, the player from Coorg has won 22 matches, including 10 singles.
He will team up with Yuki for one final time in Davis Cup, even as he continues to play on the ATP circuit. Ranked inside the top-10, he has no reason to hang up his racquet.
The AITA felicitated Bopanna in a special event on Thursday night, where his contribution to Indian tennis was lauded. Bopanna will have a lot of friends and family members in the stands, which can accommodate about 1,300 people.
Ideally, as Bopanna had requested, his farewell tie should have been hosted in Bengaluru, which has much better infrastructure and can accommodate 6,500 spectators.
SUMIT NAGAL IN GOOD TOUCH
India’s number one singles player, Sumit Nagal, is in good form. He is entering the tie after playing the final of a Challenger event in Austria. It was his third final of the season at that level. Unless there is an inexplicable meltdown, he would win two points for India.
Sasi Mukund will finally get to make his debut. He was named in the team even for the tie against Pakistan back in 2019 but pulled out, saying he had suffered a foot injury.
Digvijay Pratap Singh has also made the cut, and he might get to play a dead rubber.
Hot and humid conditions will pose a serious fitness test for both teams. Though the timings have been revised and the start of the matches has been delayed by two hours, it will still be a tough task to negate the energy-sapping conditions.
Morocco has only one worthy challenger for India’s singles players, Elliot Benchetrit.
The 24-year-old 6’4″ tall player might be ranked just 465 on the ATP singles chart as of today, but he touched a career-high 198 in February 2020.
Benchetrit has cherished wins against top-100 players, including one against a top-50 player, and has competed at the biggest stage — the Grand Slams — too.
Out of the two Indian singles players, Mukund has played and beaten him. They clashed in January 2022 at the Forli Challenger, where the Indian emerged victorious in two sets.
IMAGE: India captain Rohit Rajpal. Photograph: Media Release/AITA
If at all there will be some fight, it will be against Benchetrit, who qualified for the US Open in 2019 and Australian Open in 2020, beating quality players such as Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland on the way. He had entered the French Open as a wild card in 2018 and took a set off Frenchman Gael Monfils before losing the opening round.
The visiting team’s second singles player is 20-year-old Yassine Dlimi, ranked 557. He is still plying his trade on the ITF Futures circuit.
Adam Moundir is further behind at 779, and the remaining two players — Walid Ahouda and Younes Lalami Laaroussi — do not figure even in the top-1000.
Given the weak opponents, winning this tie won’t be much of a challenge for India but chalking out a roadmap for the future will be.
SERIOUS SOUL-SEARCHING REQUIRED
Captain Rajpal and AITA officials need to sit and discuss what is wrong with the system that India does not have a single top-100 singles player, and the team is now fighting it out in World Group II.
There are a lot of questions that need answers and some serious soul searching.
Unless India have quality singles players, the country will not excel either in Davis Cup or Grand Slams.
Tennis remains an individual and professional sport but it’s time that AITA comes up with something special to save the game from plunging to new lows.