India defeated New Zealand 4-1 in the second round Asia-Oceania Group 1 of the Davis Cup at South Club and qualified for the World Group playoffs in September. The tie was dominated by Leander Paes. I have never seen Paes play better. His serve, return of service, and overall level of consistency have improved significantly.
His exuberance has been contained by a new maturity, and his energy is now channelled to important points and not wasted in futile chase of impossible balls. There is now a smoothness in his game which is a joy to watch. A class apart from the other players in the tie Paes’ level of fitness is amazing.
Three more Davis Cup wins will put him at par with the 69 Davis Cup victories of the greatest ever-Indian player Ramanathan Krishnan. He still has quite a few years of top class tennis in him and barring mishaps is poised to go past Krishnan’s record.
For the New Zealanders, it must have been a very frustrating tie. They do not have any grass courts and are used to playing on a surface where the ball bounces high and predictably. On the wet grass they were just not able to find any rhythm or timing.
Mark Nielsen, their highest ranked player never recovered from his opening match blues with Paes. In all fairness one has to say that the New Zealanders had to face insurmountable odds. They had to contend with the debilitating heat, the slow and low bouncing grass courts due to the rain, and Paes at his aggressive best. To add to this Nielsen’s (their highest ranked player) strength was further drained by an upset stomach. On a higher bouncing surface, it would have been a well contested tie.
Rohan Bopanna’s performance brought a ray of hope for the future. For some years now we have been looking in vain for a good second singles player. Bopanna, has the potential to provide top-class backup for Paes. His two recent victories in live Davis Cup ties one against Japan and now against New Zealand confirm his ability to play under pressure, one of the most important credentials for Davis Cup play.
With a bit of luck Bopanna would have won his singles against Hunt who is a fine player with a big serve and volley game. He could not capitalize on two break points on Hunt’s serve in the closing stages of the fifth set which he lost by 9 games to 7.
Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi managed to skirt around the turbulence in their partnership and after an initial hiccup produced a silken smooth performance to humiliate the New Zealand team.
They are a great team and a priceless asset in Davis Cup play. Teams in the Asia-Oceania Group start their Davis Cup ties against India knowing that they are one match down and they have to win three out of the four singles matches. Then in the four matches left they have to contend with Leander standing steadfastly like Horatio on the bridge. Can you believe that Leander has won all his three matches in 15 Davis Cup ties!
On paper it is just another statistic. In reality it is a stupendous achievement. Few professionals would risk playing three best-of-five set matches in the blistering heat on consecutive days. If they pick up an injury and are out of action even for a few weeks they stand to lose a lot of money.
As it is, participation alone means that the player has to be off the circuit for two weeks. No wonder the top US players have so often declined to play in the Davis Cup. Leander’s contribution to Indian tennis can only be accurately assessed if you take all these factors into account — it is unparalleled and deserves a gilded accolade.
Now that we have drawn Holland in Holland, qualifying for the elite World Group of 16 seems beyond our scope. The only ray of hope could have been if we had drawn one of the weaker teams and played the tie in India on grass courts.