Zwolle: The unfancied Rohan Bopanna came within a whisker of a major upset on Friday when he lost to Martin Verkerk in a marathon opening singles in the India-Netherlands Davis Cup World Group relegation clash.
In a tension-ridden game in front of 6,000 fans, the two men slugged it out for four hours and 35 minutes before the giant Verkerk won 5-7, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (9-7), 12-10. Experienced campaigner Sjeng Schalken, ranked 13 in the world, then brushed aside Prakash Amritraj, the world No. 324, 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 to give the Dutch a 2-0 lead.
Victory in Saturday’s doubles will mean a place in the World Group next year while India will play in the Asia zone. “I have never played against a player ranked beyond 300 but he is someone who is more talented than his ranking shows,” said Verkerk after his maiden victory in the Davis Cup.
Bopanna, ranked a lowly 344, had been regarded as mere fodder for Verkerk who has risen to 14 in the world following his surprise run to the final of the French Open in June. But there have been signs in recent weeks that all was not well with Verkerk managing only two wins for six defeats since his triumphs at Roland Garros.
Bopanna took early control of the match moving the slower Verkerk around the court to win it 7-5. Verkerk hit back in the second and jumped into a 3-0 lead before levelling the match 6-3. The 23-year-old Bopanna rode the storm and took a 2-1 lead as the Dutch crowd grew anxious.
But after levelling again at two sets all by winning the fourth set tie-break 9-7, the deciding set lasted one hour and 32 minutes with Bopanna the first to crack. “I didn’t move that well and there was a lot of tension out there so I made some mistakes,” admitted Verkerk.
“But I am glad to have won the match and I thought I played pretty well after the first set. Physically, I moved very well and, mentally, I was very tough.”
Schalken’s win was much more straightforward but Armitraj, the son of Vijay Amritraj who led India to two Davis Cup finals in 1974 and 1987, battled well in the first set before the greater experience of the Dutchman took over.
In doubles, Verkerk will team up with John van Lottum to take on Bopanna and Mahesh Bhupathi. The 29-year-old Bhupathi is the only player left from the team which beat the Dutch 3-2 on grass at Jaipur in 1996. However, India’s hopes of winning on the indoor hard court here were already reduced by the absence of doubles specialist Leander Paes.