Monday, September 22, 2008

For India, so near, and yet so far

It is often said that anything is possible in Davis Cup, but in Bucharest the form guide held up to scrutiny. Host nation Romania entered its World Group Play-off against India as firm favourites, with a substantial edge in terms of rankings and clay court experience.

This would, in the end, prove enough to keep them in the World Group for another year – even if, as expected, India's ever-reliable doubles stars, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, came up with the goods in the doubles rubber for the umpteenth time.

"Of course we are happy, although we expected this," smiled Romanian captain Adrian Marcu at the completion of the tie. "I said three days ago it would be 4-1, and it was 4-1."

He added: "The Indian players have a lot of experience of playing on grass courts or hard courts, whereas our players spend at least 70% of their careers on clay. It's a bit of a different game and that was a big advantage for us."

But while the Romanians began the final day's play with a 2-1 lead, the scenario could have been quite different.

In losing the opening singles rubber on Friday to the local No. 2, Victor Crivoi, Indian No. 1 Prakash Amritraj did well to win the second set from behind – but he had also been ahead in the first set before losing it.

With a two-set lead, the 24-year-old's swashbuckling serve and volley strategy might have kept Crivoi off balance long enough to secure a momentum-changing win.

Victor Hanescu, the Romanian No. 1, would still have been too strong for Tour newcomer Somdev Devvarman, but given the closeness of the dead rubber between Devvarman and Crivoi on Sunday afternoon – Devvarman served for the match at 5-3 in the second set, only to wake up when trailing 0-5 in the third – a live Devvarman-Crivoi rubber on the first day might have cast a different light on proceedings.

Indian singles: work in progress

All of this is moot, of course, leaving captain Shiv Prakash Misra, himself a former Davis Cup player, to ponder the challenges of building up his side’s strength in singles.

Devvarman, a rookie at 23, clearly knows that although he has improved his ranking by 800 places in the last four months, it will only get harder from now on, while Amritraj, who turns 25 next month, had never before played on clay at this level.

"I think Leander and Mahesh are going to be around for quite some time," Misra said of his thirty something doubles stalwarts, who are the fourth most successful Davis Cup pairing in history (in winning Saturday’s doubles rubber, Paes actually moved to equal second place on the list of individual doubles wins, at 35-9, and third outright in overall wins, at 83-31).

"They are still fit and genuinely committed to the team. But with four singles and one doubles ties, winning the doubles is not enough."

A dignified gentleman who was coerced by his players into singing the Indian national anthem at the official dinner as a means of initiation, added: "When you’ve got a team of four with two specialist doubles players it's tough. But I think with time Prakash and Somdev are going to improve. They are going to learn how to last five sets and to close out a match at the right time, and they are going to be serving their country for a long time."

Romanian prospects

It's back to the Asia/Oceania zonal competition for India, Romania has kept its treasured place in the World Group.

The team could be forgiven for hoping their first round opponents aren't of a Gallic inclination, having fallen to France at the first hurdle in each of the past two years.

Like Misra, captain Marcu has a blend of experience to work with; 27-year-old Hanescu is undoubtedly at the core of the team, but Crivoi, whose Davis Cup record before this weekend was a drubbing at the hands of Korea’s Hyung-Taik Lee in 2006, has clearly shifted gears as well.

"I could have let one of the other players play the dead rubber but I wanted the experience," the 26-year-old said after his comeback win over Devvarman. "I feel great – it has given me a lot of confidence."

Furthermore, with Romanian legend Ilie Nastase watching on from the stands, the country's doubles team of Adrian Cruciat and Horia Tecau put on a boisterous display against Bhupathi and Paes. While they were let down by loose shots at key moments, their performance augured well for the future.

"Yes, that was a little bit unexpected, because it was their first Davis Cup match and it was against two great players," Marcu admitted. "They had their chances, were a break ahead in the first set and a break ahead in the second set, so they put a good match together. Hopefully we can develop them into a great team."

(Official report from the Davis Cup website)

(Official Photos by Robert Ghement)

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With Somdev Devvarman (January 13, 2009 and October 4, 2007)

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