| Prakash Amritraj with father Vijay at the Prime Minister's residence in New Delhi on Thursday
New Delhi: Leander Paes has always won hearts with his intensely passionate performance in Davis Cup. He did not need to even step on court to achieve that this time around with a brave decision to step down from singles play in favour of Harsh Mankad in the Asia-Oceania group I first-round tie against China beginning here on Friday.
We did not need to go scurrying to check the record books to know that in a decade and a half of Davis Cup play, just once has he not featured in singles. It was on his debut in March 1990 against Japan that Leander Paes played only the doubles and has rarely, if ever, skipped even the reverse singles contests.
The sinewy Harsh Mankad, currently the highest-ranked Indian and the man in good nick, got his captain's vote of confidence. The strapping Prakash Amritraj, as expected, would take up the other singles berth against a Chinese side that is high on confidence despite its less than adequate firepower.
'It was a tough decision that I had to make last night,' the India captain told The Telegraph. 'If the team had a non-playing captain and he asked me to play, I would bite my lip and go on to court but since I had to make the decision myself, I deliberated long and hard before making up my mind not to play on Friday.'
Mahesh Bhupathi, who will pair up with Leander Paes in the doubles rubber on Saturday, backed that decision and said it was good for India to have three players ready to play singles. 'Everyone has been looking for replacements for some time now. It is a great opportunity for Harsh and Prakash. All that remains to be done is to go out there and beat the Chinese,' he said.
But of course, the 31-year-old Paes may well take the court on Sunday if the tie is still alive. 'I will go out if necessary on Sunday but right now we are focussed on the first day of the tie,' he said. Indeed, it would be the first time since he took over as skipper that he would be able to sit on the captain's chair through a day.
'I would have liked to stretch my record in Davis Cup,' Paes said. 'But it is a question of putting the best team forward. I had to be honest with myself. The new boys in the team are in good form and deserve to take on the mantle. The whole nation will back Harsh Mankad when he steps on court tomorrow while I believe Prakash's game is tailor-made for grasscourt play.'
The 25-year-old Mankad, who will play for the first time in a home Davis Cup contest since making his debut in 2000, comes off a fine run in the British Satellite circuit where he picked up 39 ATP points. For someone who has turned out for India in Sweden, the US and Australia among other nations, it will be first time that he gets a feel of playing at home.
The 301-ranked Mumbaikar realises he has a challenge on hand if he has to justify his captain's faith in his current form. Importantly, he admits he does not have the weapons for grasscourt play. 'I realise that but I have grown up in India (once winning a national junior crown on grass) and should not have a problem with the court,' he said.
Mankad's opponent on Friday, Sung Pen, has played just one Davis Cup singles match but his ranking of 337 suggests that the 21-year-old could give the Indian a run for his money. 'I have watched Harsh play in the US, though I have never faced him on court. I believe he is good on hardcourts but it really doesn't matter,' Pen said.