BENGALURU:As soon as the Uzbekistan tie became a reality, it was accepted that if World No 71 Denis Istomin showed up, India could kiss two singles rubbers goodbye, regardless of who was fielded.
Soon, things got worse. The hosts’ top singles player Yuki Bhambri had to pull out due to injury. Debutant captain Mahesh Bhupathi had limited options to replace the 24-year-old as other singles exponents — Saketh Myneni and Vishnu Vardhan — were also injured.
Just as it was beginning to look like the tie heavily favoured the visitors, Team India got the lucky break they were hoping for — a foot injury ruled Istomin out. Uzbek captain Petr Lebed, who lacked depth in the squad, decided to field youngster Sanjar Fayziev for all the three days. The experienced Farrukh Dustov, who was out of professional tennis for six months due to a hand injury, was only picked for doubles. Now, India seems to have the advantage.
Though Bhupathi drew fire by omitting Leander Paes in doubles, he has a clear plan in place. He opted for coordination and match practice over form and reputation. By giving Prajnesh Gunneswaran and N Sriram Balaji a chance to prove themselves, the injury-prone Ramkumar Ramanathan can stay fresh for reverse singles on the third day. Even Prajnesh will get a day to recover as Rohan Bopanna will partner Sriram on Day 2.
“It obviously was a tough decision. If I had a full team here on Sunday or Monday, I probably would have had time to make a dedicated decision. Unfortunately for Leander, Wednesday was his first day and he played three games before it started raining. Doubles in Davis Cup is always a high-stress situation so throwing Leander and Bala in would have been another roll of the dice for me. Considering I have two debutants I wasn’t willing to take that risk,” he said.
The other factor that is likely to help India’s cause, is the newly-laid surface, which is quick, and the fact that all four can serve at 130 mph. “Denis’ absence will be a bigger blow for Uzbekistan because we’ve got good depth in the team. We chose Bengaluru because of the conditions and we have guys who can serve big and we will use that to our advantage,” he said.
While Lebed admitted that conditions were tricky, he added it wouldn’t hinder their performance. However, he dismissed the idea that by picking Sanjar, India had been handed the advantage. “The conditions are different and the climate is hot but we are getting used to it. Sanjar is fit to play all three days so it won’t be a problem for him,” he said.
The doubles rubber is set to be the big test for Tamil Nadu boy Sriram, who hasn’t played a five-setter before. If he and Bopanna combine well, theirs could become the new defacto doubles pairing in the future.
Sriram said sharing the court with Bopanna would be a good experience and help calm his nerves. “It is a plus point to share the court with Rohan. He’s got all the skills playing against some of the best,” he said.