If the Davis Cup is more emotion driven than the Grand Slams, the crowd certainly plays a major role.
The feeling of support and solidarity that binds a nation keep building, as the raucous supporters turn hysterical, baying for blood with every point turning out to be a battle for survival.
India will be hoping for such adrenaline-stirring encouragement against Italy at the South Club in their bid to qualify for the inaugural Davis Cup Group Finals. The two-day affair in the revamped best-of-three sets begins Friday.
On paper, India are the weaker opponents — their two highest-ranked singles players are Prajnesh Gunneswaran (102) and Ramkumar Ramanathan (133). Italy, on the other hand, have three players ranked inside the top-60 — Marco Cecchinato (19), Andreas Seppi (37) and Matteo Berrettini (54).
India are currently ranked at No. 19 on the Davis Cup nations’ rankings while Italy are placed at No. 10.
In a surprise of sorts, Italy decided to keep their top-ranked player Cecchinato out of the singles main draw. Ramkumar will take on Seppi in the opening singles, while Prajnesh has been drawn against debutant Berrettini in the second singles rubber.
“I thought that’s the best decision in this case,” Italy’s non-playing captain Corrado Barazzutti said of his combination, keeping an eye on the surprise element in grass.
The 22-year-old Berrettini, the youngest member of the side, is excited about the challenge.
“It will be tough. But we are ready for the challenge. I’m excited,” he said.
Cecchinato will partner specialist Simone Bolelli, the 2015 Australian Open winner, in the doubles clash against Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan.
While India are bidding to extend their four-tie winning streak on grass, Italy are playing their first grass-court tie since 1985, at the same venue against India. Italy lost that tie, India’s only victory in the 4-1 head-to-head advantage that the visitors enjoy.
Mahesh Bhupathi, though, hasn’t been surprised by Italy’s decision to drop the off-form Cecchinato. “This is the combination we expected.
“As far as Ram is concerned, he’s literally playing first match every time we play Davis Cup. We’re happy… I mean Seppi isn’t revealing any secret or anything,” said India’s non-playing captain.
Ramkumar isn’t feeling the pressure either. “It’s going to be difficult… But you know, playing at home with the home crowd and on grass is of course an advantage for us. I’m going to stay aggressive and hopefully, our team wins,” he said.
Seppi, on the other hand, remains cautious. “Ram has played a few times on grass and he can be very good on this surface. He played the final in Newport and also had some other good tournaments on grass,” Seppi said.
“Of course he is dangerous. He does play the serve and volley game, so it’s not going to be easy. But then every match is difficult.”
If Ramkumar or Prajnesh can throw rankings to the winds and pull off an upset, the onus will be on the doubles team to drive home the advantage in the opening rubber on Day II.
Bopanna, however, reiterated his faith in Divij. “He is only one I’ve played with this year. If you look at it that way, the most number of matches I’ve had with somebody is Divij.
“I’ve always loved playing on grass. The last time Calcutta hosted Davis Cup, I was part of the team. I’m really happy that we get to play once again in this beautiful city. Divij and I have been practising really hard and looking forward to the weekend,” he said.
Bopanna reposed his faith in the format too.
“Throughout my career, we have adapted to situations by not only playing in different styles, but also in the ATP circuit where it turned into a super tie-breaker in the third set.
“As players we just have to adapt to the format and make use of the advantage,” he said.
Ultimately, it will not be about the format, but the passion and involvement of the crowd that will drive the players.