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Indians face an uphill task

The Indian contingent (from left) V.M. Ranjeet, Purav Raja, Leander Paes, S.P. Mishra and Vijayant Malik during the Davis Cup draw in New Delhi, on Thursday. A Telegraph picture

New Delhi: Two of his teammates — VM Ranjeet and Purav Raja — were toddlers when Leander Paes began his distinguished Davis Cup career 24 years ago. Vijayant Malik, the other member of the squad, was not even born at that time.

Yet, on Thursday, when the draw for the India-South Korea tie was held at the RK Khanna Stadium, here, Paes, the veteran of 49 ties, remained the biggest threat for the visitors, who are hoping to snatch a victory against a depleted Indian squad.

So much so, the South Korean non-playing captain Yong Il Yoon decided not to try out Yong Kyu Lim, their No. 2 player, in the singles on the opening day. “He is a good doubles player, too. So we are keeping him for the second day… after all, Paes is there,” said a smiling Yoon.

On Friday, the Indian challenge will be led by Ranjeet, currently the top-ranked player in the squad at 517. At the draw held in the presence of Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, Ranjeet was drawn to play South Korea’s unranked newcomer Hyeok Cho. The day’s second match would be between Malik and Suk Young Jeong, Korea’s best player at No. 338.

Leander and Raja will cross racquets against Lim and Ji Sung Nam in the doubles on Saturday.

“It’s a positive draw. I always wanted our No. 1 player (Ranjeet) to play first. If he can pull off something, it would become easy for our second player,” India’s non-playing captain SP Mishra said in the post-draw press conference.

While it is not difficult to assume that all Mishra is looking forward is to end the Day One on even terms and hope to see Leander put India in the driver’s seat in doubles the next day, it would certainly not be an easy task to stick to the script.

The South Koreans are tough customers, determined to take advantage of a team low on strength. They are aware of the constant bickering and infighting in Indian tennis and happy to play against inexperienced newcomers. With players like Somdev Dev Varman, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Vishnu Vardhan missing from the line-up, all the South Koreans have to do is to find a way to tame the Leander-led doubles combination.

Things would not be easy for Leander, too. For the last one year, AITA did not help him to settle down with one single partner while playing for India. After Bhupathi and Bopanna refused to partner him, Leander did a fine job with Vardhan in the Olympics. Now, Vardhan, too, in the rebel group, Leander would have to fight it out with debutant Raja.

Leander, however, remained upbeat. “Their doubles combination looks good but Purav, too, is a fabulous player with lot of skills. We need to gel well… it’s about combination and communication, especially when surface is slow and bouncing,” he said.

All said and done, India definitely as start the underdogs in the encounter. The refusal of 11 players to be available for the tie has put the hosts in a spot of bother.

Compared to Ranjeet and Malik, the South Koreans are far more experienced. Ranked 321, Jeong has won two of the five Davis Cup singles matches he has played so far. Cho is not ranked but played well against Australian players like Bernard Tomic and Marinko Matosevic.