New Delhi: There’s no love lost between Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. If that is the biggest tragedy of Indian sport, the biggest conundrum is the way they manage to put personal differences aside every time they share the doubles court donning India colours.
They did it once again, on a sunny Monday morning at the R.K. Khanna Stadium. This time, their victims were world No. 1 doubles player Jonas Bjorkman and his Swedish partner Simon Aspelin.
Down a set but up a break in the second when inadequate light stopped the third rubber of the Davis Cup World Group play-off tie on Sunday, Paes and Bhupathi played vintage doubles to run out comprehensive winners, as the 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 scoreline shows.
It was the first live rubber India had won in four ties versus Sweden. Vijay Amritraj’s triumph over Mats Wilander in Bangalore 20 years ago came after Sweden had already taken a decisive 3-0 lead.
The former world No. 1 pair further embellished their Davis Cup record as a pair (18 matches won, 2 lost), but that wasn’t enough to ensure India a passage to the elusive World Group.
Thomas Johansson made short work of Prakash Amritraj (6-4, 6-3, 6-2) in the afternoon to give Sweden an unbeatable 3-1 advantage and keep them in the elite group.
The two teams agreed to cancel the dead fifth rubber, which would have pitted Paes (as Rohan Bopanna has torn a tendon on his left ankle and has been ruled out for at least three weeks) against Bjorkman.
The brighter side of a losing story first. Paes and Bhupathi came out relaxed and motivated, keen to keep the tie alive and give Amritraj a shot at glory. The first set was sewn up after 20 minutes of solid action.
A blazing backhand service return from Bhupathi, followed by a double-fault by Aspelin gave the Indians a quick break in the second set.
Aspelin may have dropped serve, but it was an aberration. It was his more reputed partner who turned out to be the weak link.
Bjorkman felt the heat, Paes and Bhupathi pressed the accelerator hard. The drum-beating crowd (about 1,500 turned up on Monday) loved every moment as Bhupathi did the spadework from backcourt and Paes finished things off with typical alacrity at the net.
The famous chest-butts were on display every time they combined to earn a crucial point. One of them was to celebrate the point of the match, in the seventh game of the fourth set.
Bjorkman, who was serving, seemed to be in control but Paes produced two incredible retrievals, Bhupathi kept the point alive before the captain’s forehand volley bisected the two Swedes.
It gave the Indians the decisive break and they were in no mood to waste it. The Aspelin serve came under pressure in the ninth game. He managed to fight off four match-points before Bhupathi’s forehand service return sealed victory.
None expected a miracle from Amritraj when he went out to face Johansson, all they wanted was a serious fight.
Well, Vijay Amritraj’s son did put up a fight with some stylish serve-and-volley routines, but it lasted only a set and a half.
Johansson was in his elements on Monday. The world No. 14 served accurately and delivered two aces per game in the first set to deny Amritraj any sniff at a break-point.
The Swede’s class showed in the seventh game when he unfurled a pair of whipping forehand winners to capture Amritraj’s serve. That was enough to give him the first set.
In the second set, with Johansson slowing down a bit, Amritraj had a wonderful chance to nose ahead only to make a mess of two break-points in the fourth game.
Johansson made him pay for the lapses, coming with another pair of classy service returns to get the break in game 7. The second set was over then and there.
The third set was a cakewalk for Johansson, especially after Prakash had to take a medical timeout for developing cramps. Over two days, Amritraj showed he still remains a talent who needs careful nurturing.
Bopanna has gone a step forward.