India will play New Zealand in the first round of the Asia-Oceania Group I phase of the Davis Cup 2004. The tie is being held in early February in New Zealand. Since 1998 courtesy Leander Paes, India have managed to win the Asia-Oceania Zone but failed to qualify for a place in the elite World Group of 16.
Tennis standards worldwide have reached unbelievable levels while the Indian progress has been restricted to doubles. In singles Paes in his twilight years battles on. It seems unlikely that India will be able to win a spot in World Group in the near future.
The US and Australian domination is a thing of the past. There are quite a few nations now who could win the Cup, depending on the surface and availability of their top players. In the 2003 Davis Cup final, Spain face Australia in Melbourne on grass. In my view, at the top level, players are now able to adjust better to different surfaces. Also, most top players have abandoned the serve-and-volley game and adjusted their technique to play on all surfaces. It is unlikely that we will see the likes of Edberg and Rafter again in the tennis world.
Coming back to our tie against New Zealand I would have said that with Paes at 100 per cent India would have come through comfortably. The question is that after a six-month layoff due to illness can Paes attain peak level in five weeks and be at his competitive best' It is a Herculean task. Normally, I would say it is almost impossible. But, the Paes factor of pulling off the unexpected is always there.
Rohan Bopanna and Prakash Amritraj have yet to prove themselves but are certainly capable of winning the tie for India, especially with Mahesh Bhupathi’s support in the doubles. Bopanna’s superb display against French open finalist Martin Verkerk in our Davis Cup tie against the Netherlands when he was just two points away from victory highlighted his great potential.
Bopanna has what John McEnroe is trying to instil in British tennis — ‘fire in his belly’. But it is one thing playing with nothing to lose against a very high ranked opponent and quite another to take on lower ranked players with everything at stake. This tie, loaded with responsibility will be an acid test for Bopanna especially if Paes is unable to play.
Prakash Amritraj who is now 193 in the ATP rankings seems to have made very good progress and could well become a valuable asset for the Indian Davis Cup team in the future. Davis Cup rules now permit changing players during the tie and Paes could be brought into play on the final day in any of the two reverse singles if necessary.
The appointment of Paes as playing captain was a surprise. In the event of a close tie in which Paes has to not only play, but win both his singles and the doubles the additional burden of being captain may make the difference between victory and defeat. The duties of a good captain are manifold. Official meetings with the organisers, the referee, social engagements, the draw, fixing practice sessions, watching the other team and inspiring his own boys.
Besides, the captain has to sit in the chair for the matches of the second singles player. The very thought of doing all this is exhausting.
There is little doubt in my mind that Paes will make a great captain. As a player his attitude, relentless drive and intense passion inspires the whole team. Also, being on the circuit he has been able to keep in touch with the developments in the modern game. Paes still has a few years of top class tennis in him and we cannot afford to dilute his strength with the additional responsibility of captaincy.
A non-playing captain must be found so that Paes can concentrate on his matches. Thailand and Srichaphan and Korea with Lee, both of whom are top-level singles players, will make things very difficult for India in the Asia-Oceania Group. Our second string players have to improve considerably or else we could find ourselves struggling at the Group I level and the elite World Group would become a pipedream.