Busan, Oct. 4: Playing a singles match is akin to climbing the Mount Everest for Leander Paes these days. He stands a chance only if the conditions suit him to the T. More often than not, he runs out of oxygen.
It was one such day at the Geumjeong Tennis Stadium. Nothing went right for the 1996 Olympic bronze-medallist as Vadim Kutsenko whipped him 6-0, 6-4 to give top seeds Uzbekistan a headstart in the Asian Games team quarter final tie this morning.
Rohan Bopanna, playing his first live rubber for India, dominated Oleg Ogorodov for much of two sets only to go down 5-7, 6-2, 3-6. It was a match the hard-serving Bopanna would have won had he not cracked at crucial junctures.
Bopanna’s loss gave the Uzbeks an unbeatable 2-0 advantage, rendering the doubles redundant and delaying the Busan chapter of the Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi saga. Bhupathi, playing with Sunil Kumar, couldn’t salvage pride as they went down 1-6, 6-4, 6-7 to Kutsenko and Dmitry Tomashevic.
The women’s team met with the same fate, going down 0-2 to Chinese Taipei. There was a silver lining, though. Like Bopanna, 17-year-old Sania Mirza took a higher-ranked opponent — Janet Lee, who was once in the world's top 70 — the full distance.
Sania captured the first set and then led 4-1 in the tie-break before a double-fault ruined her concentration. She went on to lose 6-4, 6-7 (4-7), 2-6. That was after Nirupama Vaidyanathan had gone down 4-6, 1-6 to Su-Wei Hsieh.
Watching Paes play Kutsenko was a painful experience. He was a shadow of the man who had single-handedly won many a battle for his country over the last decade or so. Rusty and a trifle overweight, Paes was extremely sluggish on court.
He didn’t serve well either, getting no more than 40 per cent of his first deliveries. “We are not used to playing with the Korean balls they are using here,” Paes said. “They are pressureless balls which slow down after coming in contact with the surface. I’m not making any excuses… it’s just that the conditions suited him better.”
Singles is completely off Paes’ professional agenda. “Lack of match practice in singles meant that I took time to settle down… and he started off like a house on fire.”
Does he remember the last time he lost a set 0-6' “Maybe when I was 10 or 12,” was the answer.
The second set saw a fight with Paes breaking Kutsenko in the first game and holding three game points for a 2-0 lead. From 40-0, though, the Indian lost five straight points to surrender the initiative.
Paes for mixed doubles
Meanwhile, the Indian thinktank Friday decided to field Paes in mixed doubles with Sania. All this while, he was due to play the individual singles event. But his form being what it is, it makes good sense to change his entry to mixed doubles.
Mahesh Bhupathi and Manisha Malhotra are the other mixed doubles entrants. The individual events begin Monday.