| Bopanna: Distinctively positive
Calcutta: The clouds of uncertainty that had gathered over South Club were blown away swiftly on Super Sunday as India advanced to the Davis Cup World Group play-off round for the fourth straight year.
Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi had a stroll in the park, stamping out Alistair Hunt and Mark Nielsen 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. Rohan Bopanna made amends for letting victory slip from his grasp Saturday, routing James Shortall 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 to seal the Asia-Oceania group I second-round tie against New Zealand.
Paes, not one to skip a dead rubber, beat the daylights out of poor Robert Cheyne to make the scoreline 4-1.
Paes makes no bones about his dream of becoming India’s best Davis Cupper. He took three firm steps towards that goal this weekend, narrowing the gap with Ramanathan Krishnan to three matches.
In a career spanning 14 years, Paes’ win-loss record stands at 66-29. Krishnan, arguably the best tennis player ever to have played for India, had a 69-28 tally.
This was the 15th time in 33 Cup ties that Paes had won all three matches — another remarkable record. And he hadn’t dropped serve even once in eight sets in the New Zealand tie.
The doubles result was a foregone conclusion, but not so Bopanna’s reverse singles. He went into his match in a relaxed frame of mind, eager to give India an unassailable 3-1 lead but also aware that Paes had a match in hand even if he were to lose.
Fortune smiled on the Indian No. 1 (ranked 348) even before a point had been contested. He found himself playing the inexperienced James Shortall rather than world No. 338 Mark Nielsen.
Captain Glenn Wilson was forced to make this change as the sick Nielsen was not in a position to take the singles court. He gambled with the blond 25-year-old in doubles and chose Shortall over Cheyne for Mission Bopanna. More adept at doubles, the 23-year-old Shortall came across a determined and hungry man across the net. Unlike Saturday, Bopanna was prepared to make things happen rather than letting the match drift. He was distinctively positive on his returns and stroked the ball with a sense of purpose.
Against Hunt, Bopanna played his best tennis in the fifth set but on Sunday he maintained an above-average level right through the 85-minute match. The first of a plethora of winners — a whipped backhand crosscourt service return — gave Bopanna the break in game 6.
There was a hiccup while serving for the set at 5-3 as two double-faults and a weak backhand volley gave Shortall a break-point. Bopanna reacted strongly, unleashing two unreturnable serves. The set was Bopanna’s in less than half an hour.
Shortall struggled as much with Bopanna’s serve — the Indian had 14 aces — as with his own (11 double-faults). The unfamiliarity with grasscourt showed in his game too.
A Shortall overhead crashed into the net to gift a break-point to Bopanna in the opening game of the second set. The Indian pounced on the early opportunity, ripping a down-the-line service return past the lunging Kiwi.
Bopanna earned the insurance break in Shortall’s very next service game, this time coming up with a forehand pass. The Indian held comfortably to close out the second set in quick time too.
Shortall, who had lost to Harsh Mankad in the dead fifth rubber in Wellington last year, put up a semblance of fight in the third set. He fought off a break-point in the third game and two more in the fifth to be on serve till 4-4. But Bopanna was not ready to let Shortall repeat Hunt’s Houdini act. He piled the pressure in game 9 and pushed the Kiwi to 30-40 with a stylish forehand pass. Shortall did the rest, committing a double-fault to let Bopanna serve for the match.
The Indian wrapped it up with a bang, ripping two aces down the middle and finishing it off with a classical serve-and-volley sequence. Shortall’s game is not a patch on Hunt, but that should not deflect the credit off Bopanna. It was a refreshing performance after a patchy effort against Hunt. More importantly, this was Bopanna’s second decisive fourth-rubber win in as many ties.
Duo on fire
The day had begun on a rousing note for the hosts. Paes was in cracking form and with Bhupathi joining in the party second set onwards, the former world No. 1 pair had a sumptuous Kiwi meal.
Of course, Hunt made the Indians work hard in the initial stages. Paes had to wriggle out from 0-40 in game 2 while Bhupathi dropped serve in game 4. Hunt, the only man without a cap, set up the breakthrough with a pair of scintillating returns.
Sadly for the visitors, they had a one-man army out there. Nielsen didn’t just play some horrible tennis, he was actually a big liability. If he was really that unwell, the captain shouldn’t have fielded him in the first place.
Nielsen’s errors helped the Indians overcome a jittery start. He lost both his service games in the first set which Paes wrapped up with three aces.
Hunt’s patience ran out in the middle of the second set which coincided with Bhupathi turning the heat on. The senior Kiwi dropped serve on a double-fault after Paes had played an amazing backhand lob.
Nielsen lost serve a third time, this time Bhupathi setting it up with a trademark double-fisted backhand service return.
In the third set, too, the Indians — combining as if they play day in and day out on the circuit — captured Hunt and Nielsen’s service games once each to sail home.
It was Paes-Bhupathi’s 13th Davis Cup win in 15 doubles appearances.