CHENNAI: The odds are stacked heavily against India in the Davis Cup qualifier against Italy beginning on Friday. They have the better players and are blessed with the kind of depth that the hosts can only dream about. This was evident at the draw ceremony where the visitors revealed that Marco Cecchinato — the best player in the two teams according to rankings — is not slated to play the singles rubbers.
Their main singles players will be Andreas Seppi, who opens proceedings against Ramkumar Ramanathan, and Matteo Berettini, who will make his debut against Prajnesh Gunneswaran. On paper, the hosts do not stand a chance.
If you are after rankings, it’s World No 133 vs No 33 followed by No 102 and No 53. If you need wins on the World Tour, the numbers are more sobering. Seppi (357) himself has won 23x more matches than Ramanathan (20) and Gunneswaran (3) combined.
But the Mahesh Bhupathi-led outfit is optimistic. They have repeated one mantra since landing in Kolkata more than a week ago. “Rankings don’t matter in Davis Cup.”
While there is a logic behind this sentiment — these ties can swing on passion, fervent home support and a streaky couple of days for the underdog — the World No 19 has seldom managed to beat more illustrious opponents in recent memory. One has to go way back to 2010 for an Indian win against higher-ranked opponents (Brazil at Chennai in the playoffs). Since then, they have lost against Serbia (thrice), Japan, Czech Republic, Spain and Canada. In the above-mentioned seven encounters, India managed to win a total of six rubbers. So given that history, why is there cause for cautious optimism?
The decision to play on grass, a surface that’s considered alien to most Italians; them on grass is almost akin to frontline Indian batsmen in overseas conditions in the late 1990s. In fact, it’s why Cecchinato has been dropped from the singles roster by captain Corradi Barazzutti. The 26-year-old has only played three tournaments on grass since turning pro in 2010.
That’s before you throw in Gunneswaran and Ramanathan’s ability on grass, a surface Italy haven’t played on for 35 years. It is the latter’s favourite surface and helps his new-found love for serve-and-volley. This fact wasn’t lost on Seppi. “I have seen him on grass a few times,” he said on Thursday. “He can play very good, he reached the Newport final in 2018. So it is not going to be easy.” The southpaw, too, has a game which might cause a headache or two. His powerful groundstrokes from the baseline laid waste to then World No 23 Denis Shapavalov on the grass of Stuttgart in 2018.
But Bazarrutti was of the opinion that it wouldn’t matter much. “They play just a few tournaments on grass. So everybody is in the same situation. There is no problem, we have the players who can play well on grass.” Ramanathan begged to differ. “Playing on grass is an advantage (for India),” he said. “I am just going to stay aggressive and hope our team does well.”
One half of India’s doubles pairing, Divij Sharan, echoed India’s mindset. “We are all pumped and ready to get on with it,” he said. “Ram and Prajnesh are coming off good seasons on grass... we believe (we can do it).” That feeling is stronger because of the new format — best of three sets over two days. “You can say that (this format helps us more than Italy).”
With the surface not your typical grass — “courts are not like Wimbledon, it is different grass and may not be perfect” was how Seppi summed it up — India have tried to level a skewed playing field. The onus is now on the players to bridge the remaining gap on the field of play.