Indonesia has an unknown quality about it; Sanam to partner Leander

The last time leafy, languorous Cubbon Park hosted a Davis Cup tie, matters were rather more swish.

It was the autumn of 1985. The Swedes rolled into town like rock stars — but being Swedish, they reportedly were modest, understated rockstars — a team of Mats Wilander, who arrived fashionably late, Anders Jarryd, Stefan Edberg, and Joakim Nystrom.

To counter the defending champion, India lined up the brothers Amritraj, Ramesh Krishnan, and Sashi Menon. The KSLTA, for its part, turned to horticulture, seeding its clay courts so the Indians could play on fast, unpredictable grass, their best surface. But because of intermittent rain and heavy tennis traffic, the water-softened courts began to resemble a once fine head of hair in decline.

The reportage of the day kept up with and added to the glamour. Even read now, the drama and the urgency of the situation is palpable: at stake, a semifinal spot!

Twenty-eight years later, the stakes are considerably lower.

No slipping further

When India plays Indonesia in the three-day tie here at the KSLTA Stadium from Friday, its ambition will be to slip no further. The loser of this Asia-Oceania Group I relegation playoff first round slides into the second and final round — a frankly unsettling state of affairs, for the loser of that tie, scheduled for September, gets demoted to Group II. Not quite two steps from Hell, but near enough.

If there is a silver lining, it is that India’s endeavour to win and remain in Group I — and within sighting distance of the promised land, the World Group — will not be threatened the same way its semifinal quest was in 1985. (Sweden swept India 4-1 on its way to a successful title defence; India’s only win came in the reverse singles after the tie had been settled, Vijay Amritraj beating Wilander 8-6, 9-7 — “a class act … as delightful a cameo as any in recent Davis Cup history in this country,” according to The Hindu).

Indonesia doesn’t appear to have the quality to beat India over five rubbers, especially now that India has its best singles players back. Christopher Rungkat, Indonesia’s top player at World No. 250, is ranked between Somdev Devvarman (No. 208) and Yuki Bhambri (No. 279). But Rungkat has lost both his previous matches against Bhambri — even if they were tight best-of-three-set contests on the ITF circuit in 2011 and 2012. He was also conquered more recently by Sanam Singh, in February.

Considering these head-to-head-records and Devvarman’s recent form on the hard-courts — the Indian No.1 has to his credit wins over four top-80 players this year, the most impressive of them, France’s Benoit Paire — the host should fancy its chances of taking at least three of the four singles. But India can ill-afford complacency.

Not mentally invulnerable

For one, the team isn’t mentally invulnerable; however united the camp sounds at the moment, the issues that led to 11 players boycotting the tie against Korea haven’t been put to bed. For another, Indonesia has an unknown quality about it. India isn’t acquainted with 19-year-old Wisnu Adi Nugroho, Indonesia’s second singles player; Devvarman said Nugroho hits his backhand single-handed, but that was the extent of his knowledge.

Besides Davis Cup play has shown it can veer from the straight and narrow, “driven,” as one writer put it, “by the locomotive force of individual courage, skills and determination”. Few are as aware of this as Leander Paes, set to participate in his 50th tie, and his experience should help keep a young team from getting ahead of itself.

Paes’s partner was confirmed in Thursday’s draw ceremony as Sanam Singh, yet to play a Davis Cup doubles rubber. It also emerged that Devvarman will start things for India against Nugroho on Friday, a schedule non-playing captain S.P. Misra said would be to the team’s advantage, for it would set the tie up.

The second singles match between Bhambri and Rungkat will determine the direction the tie takes: Indonesia won’t recover from 0-2; 1-1 will make India just a shade uneasy.

Keywords: Davis Cup

More In: Tennis | Sport