Calcutta: A tornado struck New Zealand this morning, blowing Mark Nielsen off court. Then the heavens opened up, putting off Rohan Bopanna’s dream of seeing India hold the whip in their Asia Oceania group I second-round tie at the South Club.
It was eight minutes past noon when the blond Kiwi sent an intended forehand top-spin drive sailing over the baseline to give Leander Paes a 6-1, 7-6 (7-1), 6-2 verdict. Bopanna and Alistair Hunt came out amid gathering clouds and had just tossed the coin before the rain came down.
The shower lasted 35 minutes but was sharp enough to penetrate the plastic cover. Referee Nao Kawate didn’t have a difficult decision to make after the 3 pm inspection.
The second day will see an early start with Bopanna and Hunt crossing swords at 10 am. The doubles will follow, leaving captain Glenn Wilson the tricky task of deciding whether to persist with part-time soldier Hunt for the middle rubber.
But with the weather gods playing truant again late night, chances of an early start on Day II seemed bleak.
Going back to the event of the day, it was vintage Paes on show in front of a disappointing 1,500 turnout. Relishing the relatively comfortable conditions, the Davis Cup magician waved his wand merrily to mesmerise an already jittery opponent into a spell of inactivity.
The serve was Paes’ most potent weapon Friday. He maintained a fabulous first-serve percentage of 70 and thereabouts, and delivered 15 aces to never let Nielsen get a whiff of a break. Just twice in the match — that too in the third set — did the New Zealander manage to push Paes to 40-30 on the Indian’s serve.
A couple of more statistics give an insight into Paes’ domination — he conceded a solitary point on serve in the entire opening set and captured six of his games at love.
Another notable feature in the maestro’s tennis was a conscious effort to cut out all fancy shots which normally flow from his repertoire. Unforced errors were few and far between as Paes used his reliable forehand and the trusted chipped return to telling effect.
The slapped forehand service-return came in handy too, as Nielsen groped in the dark to bring in some sunshine to his rusty game. Not known to handle high-pressure situations well, as is evident from his unenviable Davis Cup record, the 25-year-old Kiwi No. 1 seemed to have come out on court a beaten man.
It was soon evident that he had left his volleying skills in the locker room. And the serves just wouldn’t land in the right place. Such a combination was bound to spell disaster, more so on a grasscourt. Paes had no difficulty handling Nielsen’s second serves, sending them back low and flat to the New Zealander’s discomfiture. The first set was over in 22 minutes as Nielsen dropped serve in games 1, 5 and 7.
The second set would have traversed an identical path had Paes not failed to utilise any of the six break-points. Both in the second and eighth games, Nielsen was down 0-40. To his credit, though, he came out of the woods on his own merit.
Nielsen was a different player when he got his booming first serves in. That stood him in good stead in the second set before the errors crept back in the third.
Having been taken to a tie-breaker, Paes uncorked three champagne winners to pocket the second set. A blistering service return, an inside-out forehand and a volley-drive put it well beyond Nielsen who often stared back at his rival in awe and disbelief.
Paes wasted two more break-points early in the third set before coming up with a fine lob to squash any recovery hopes Nielsen may have harboured. That was in the third game. In the seventh, Paes drove in the last nail with a pair of perfect service return winners.
Chair umpire’s woes
Nielsen was not the only one to have a forgettable outing at the South Club. Chair umpire Juaraj Hrbaty had a tough time too.
The Slovakian chair umpire, younger brother of former top-20 player Dominik Hrbaty, failed to cope with the humidity and started bleeding from the nose at the start of the third set. He was brave enough to continue but only after blocking the blood flow with cotton wool and application of an ice pack.