| Alistair Hunt exults after winning a gruelling five-setter against Rohan Bopanna at the South Club Saturday. Picture by Santosh Ghosh
Calcutta, April 5: Alistair Hunt stole Rohan Bopanna’s thunder to infuse interest in the Asia Oceania group I second-round tie at the South Club Saturday. The New Zealand veteran did what very few foreigners have managed in Davis Cup on Indian soil — overturn a two-set deficit to clinch the match 9-7 in the fifth.
Furious at referee Nao Kawate’s decision to start the second singles — held over from Friday — at 11 am, Hunt and his captain Glenn Wilson grumbled their way to big trouble Saturday morning. A break in the middle of the third set helped soothe Hunt’s nerves and he ultimately squeezed out a 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 9-7 victory in three hours and 10 minutes.
Not only did Hunt neutralise Leander Paes’ cakewalk over Mark Nielsen, he prolonged his match long enough to force a postponement of the doubles rubber. According to Davis Cup rules, a player who has already been involved in 45 games can’t be made to start another match the same day.
Since Hunt and Nielsen had been nominated for doubles, New Zealand grabbed the chance to remain all square rather than stare at a 1-2 scoreline by Saturday evening itself. That looks inevitable once Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi take the court at 10 am on Sunday, but the 30-year-old Hunt may get an extra day’s rest before his clash with Paes.
With Bopanna slated to take on Nielsen after the doubles, there is every chance that the Paes-Hunt match will get postponed to Monday. The Kiwis are obviously hoping to catch Bopanna off guard a second time and give Hunt a shot at tripping Paes in the decisive fifth rubber.
Today, Bopanna did put his best foot forward but still came up a little short against a man eight years his senior who cured a self-inflicted wound in the nick of time. The Indian lived upto his reputation of being a big server — 29 aces were complimented by 10 double-faults. His volleying was effective without being spectacular but his returns lacked both consistency and finesse.
The one-dimensional nature of Bopanna’s game didn’t hurt him initially as Hunt gifted him the first two sets. The New Zealander let his anger and frustration — at being forced to play in “unplayable and slippery” conditions — get to his head.
Hunt’s foul mood suited Bopanna perfectly, the Indian getting a string of free points courtesy a dozen double-faults and a slew of wild shots. Hunt, more of a coach than an active player for the past two years, had three close calls in the fourth game before eventually losing serve in the tenth.
Bopanna unleashed a smooth forehand winner — his first in the match — before Hunt slit his own throat by delivering a double-fault and stabbing a forehand volley well wide.
In the second set, too, Bopanna missed out early — the big New Zealander fighting off three break-points. It was only a temporary reprieve, though, as Hunt slipped to set-point following another double-fault in the 10th game. Bopanna accepted it this time, putting away a routine forehand into the open court after pushing his opponent wide with an angled service return.
Two sets up against an opponent who had anything but tennis on his mind, Bopanna must have started visualising celebrations with teammates and excited parents who had travelled all the way from Coorg.
A loose service game from Bopanna gave Hunt the first glimmer of hope. A double-fault, followed by a rushed volley made it 30-40 in game 5. Hunt completed the break with the first of a series of delightful backhand passes.
Up 4-2, Hunt was a transformed person. As he got his focus back, the quality of serving and returning improved manifold. Bopanna was suddenly up against a much classier tennis player.
Hunt created a second service-break with a pair of stylish winners to capture the third set comfortably.
Hunt’s brilliance enabled him pocket the fourth set in next to no time — thanks to breaks in games 6 and 8.
To Bopanna’s credit, he didn’t let Hunt roll over him in the final set. He kept delivering thunderbolts and was hardly tested. He had Hunt in trouble in the 11th game and could have earned the decisive break with a bit of luck. A running backhand down-the-line on break-point, at the end of the longest — and best — rally of the match, landed half an inch wide of target.
The exhausted Kiwi survived two more break-points before gleefully accepting Bopanna’s offerings in the 16th game. A backhand slice, almost non-existent in Bopanna’s repertoire, sailed wide. And on match-point, out came a double-fault.