| Calcutta has moved into summer zone. Thursday, with the mercury touching 35 degrees Celsius and the humidity shooting to 94 per cent, water quenched on-court thirst and strapped the heat. Friday will be Leander’s tryst with Nielsen, and with the simmering South Club lawn. Picture by Amit Datta
Calcutta: Some things don’t change in Indian tennis. Its over- dependence on Leander Paes, for example.
Like a hackneyed phrase, the Davis Cup team has been demanding at least two wins from him every tie and more often than not, Paes has delivered. The setting’s no different this time as India go into their Asia Oceania group I second-round tie against New Zealand expecting the senior pro to pull off both his singles rubbers as well as the doubles.
There is a Rohan Bopanna lurking in the background, eager to seal his status as a long-term singles player. The 22-year-old from Coorg has the physique and the tools to strike it rich but his lack of consistency has left Paes yearning for a suitable back-up to lessen his burden.
Mark Nielsen, the man who pushed him the distance last year in Wellington, will be gunning for Paes first thing Friday morning. The 29-year-old Indian won’t mind playing the opening rubber as it will give him some extra hours of rest before Saturday noon’s doubles date with Mahesh Bhupathi.
Paes will be back for the final match Sunday afternoon — against Alistair Hunt — no doubt hoping that the tie would have been sealed by then.
“The first match suits me fine… after 14 years of playing three matches every tie, it’s good to get a longer break between matches, especially in hot and humid conditions like these,” Paes said after the team’s one-hour workout on the South Club centre court.
On paper, the 25-year-old Nielsen has the credentials to match Paes. A big server not averse to volleying, the Aucklander shouldn’t be put off by the grass court as much as most foreigners are. It’s his recent form and the question mark over his temperament on the big stage that make him vulnerable in Paes’ backyard.
Apart from a Davis Cup win against Pakistan, Nielsen has three victories under his belt in four tournaments this year. That virtually nullifies his advantage of facing a man who doesn’t play singles outside the Davis Cup.
New Zealand are hardly better placed than the hosts vis-à-vis the second singles player. Hunt, in fact, is with the team by default. The tall 30-year-old from Christchurch quit the Tour two years ago and makes himself available for Cup ties only. The management had half a mind to pull another player — Brett Steven — out of retirement and bring him to India.
A strong server who partnered Paes for a while during their junior days, Hunt has some experience on grass. But seeing him drag his sweat-drenched body from the court to the dressing-room after a laborious session on centre court this afternoon, one felt the Kiwis are expecting miracles from a man well past his prime.
All the more reason why Bopanna should go out guns blazing Friday afternoon. Fresh from a final appearance in the Mumbai ITF Futures meet preceded by his maiden live rubber triumph — against Japan’s Jun Kato in Delhi two months ago — Bopanna is not short on confidence.
“I’m not worrying about my opponent, I’ll just play my natural game,” Bopanna said after the draw ceremony Thursday morning. If he can avoid an attack of nerves and counter the tricks the experienced Hunt will surely be trying, it could be Bopanna’s day.
The Kiwis’ calculation is uncomplicated. They know doubles is a lost cause, so they are targeting the two Bopanna matches and counting on either Nielsen or Hunt to steal a point from Paes. That, of course, is a tall order in these steamy conditions.
“The centre court looked a little soft, hope they don’t water it any more,” said captain Glenn Wilson. “Of course, it will be the same for both teams… as will be the weather conditions.”
Paes, though, is convinced that humidity will prove to be the decisive factor in this race for the World Group play-off round. “I’ve had just three days to get adjusted to these conditions and even though we are accustomed to it, it’s not been easy. I am not underestimating Nielsen or Hunt, but I am waiting to see how they cope with the weather.”
His humility stopped him from mentioning the other obstacle in Kiwi-path: Leander Adrian Paes.
As somebody reminded him the other day, Paes hasn’t lost a match to anyone in the Asia-Oceania zone during the last five years. Add Paes-Bhupathi’s invincibility and the glimmer of hope emanating from Bopanna’s racket, it’s easy to see why New Zealand are up against it.
Friday: Leander Paes vs Mark Nielsen from 10 am, followed by Rohan Bopanna vs Alistair Hunt.
Saturday: Paes & Mahesh Bhupathi vs Nielsen & Hunt from noon (the pairings may be changed till an hour before the match)
Sunday: Bopanna vs Nielsen from 10 am followed by Paes vs Hunt