Swedes ready to give Indians the ride of their lives

BASTAD, JULY 20. The other day, the visiting Indian Davis Cup team players were taken out for the ride of their lives.

Setting out on a state-of-the-art inflatable power boat in the picturesque Bay of Laholm - a stretch of ocean between Sweden and Denmark - the boys came back raving about the experience. Every one of them acknowledged that it was at once scary and exhilarating, ``out of this world,'' to be precise.

Over the next three days, on a blood red clay court of the Bastad Tennis Stadium, what Ramesh Krishnan's boys would be put through by a strong and supremely confident home team may very well turn out to be a scary experience, given the unflattering pedigree of the visiting side.

But, no matter the gulf in class and rankings, it is entirely up to the Indian boys to make it as exhilarating as the boat ride was. If they manage to do this - and, on paper, this is a huge ask - this quaint little town's hundreds of diehard tennis fans as well as every Indian player who goes out on court will turn out to be winners, no matter the result of the World Group qualifying tie between India and Sweden which begins on Friday.

Never perhaps in the last two decades - which, in fact, is as far as the World Group competition goes back - has an Indian Davis Cup team set out for such a crucial tie without being able to call upon the services of a single player ranked in the top 350.

If the Swedish non-playing captain Carl-Alex Hageskog might have proposed a toast the moment he found out that his team would host India in the qualifying round, then a few weeks ago, when he learnt that Leander Paes's wrist injury would keep the Indian Cup hero out of this tie, the genial Swede would have perhaps allowed himself the luxury of a bottle of Dom Perignon.

To be sure, the Swedes need no such luck to regain their place in the World Group. Even a full strength Indian team, with Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi playing both singles and doubles, might have found this a near-impossible task, even in the absence of the host nation's top player Magnus Norman and despite the late withdrawal of Thomas Enqvist - replaced by Thomas Johansson on the team - because of a shoulder injury.

But the presence of Paes would have surely turned this into a potentially competitive tie that may have kept the spectators on their seat-edge. In his absence, Prahlad Srinath and the debutant Harsh Mankad, who play Mikael Tillstrom and Andreas Vinciguerra respectively on the opening day, have a mountain to climb before they can so much as hope to revel in the applause.

Srinath, who has been playing regularly in Europe, has certainly benefited from the experience. He has been hitting the ball wonderfully well in practice and has been serving confidently. But as the genial man from Mysore himself admits, club tennis in Germany and the Challenger and Futures circuits in Europe are not the same as a crucial Davis Cup tie against world class opposition.

``I am playing well. And I have practised very hard over the last few days. I just want to go out there and do the best I can,'' said Srinath who, no matter his ranking (385), is the top clay court specialist in this Indian team.

Srinath believes that the Swedes have slowed down the court considerably over the last few days with constant watering and it is now nowhere as quick as it was on the final day of the Swedish Open last Sunday.

This, of course, is to be expected in Davis Cup competition where home advantage is a big factor, although this time this is not the only thing that would tip the scales in Sweden's favour.

If Srinath himself is one of the lowest ranked players who would be figuring in a World Group qualifying tie, then Harsh Mankad, at 545, would have hardly expected to be where he is and facing the challenge that he does right now a few months ago.

But things have come along nicely for the young man from Mumbai whose sporting pedigree needs no new emphasis. However, from a spot of success on the Futures circuit at home to the status of a Davis Cup singles player in a crucial tie is a big jump.

A bit of a throwback to the days of the wooden racquet, Harsh is a lovely player to watch. But how well his rather fragile game would stand up against the hard hitting Swedes used to the major leagues of the game will be known when he steps out to play Vinciguerra in the first match of the competition.

Ah, major league...that is the key, really. India has two players - Paes and Bhupathi - who belong in the major league while Sweden has perhaps a dozen. And it is this strength in depth that underlines the difference between the two countries as tennis playing nations.

In most other countries, the absence of a player like Norman and the last minute withdrawal of a top star like Enqvist would have left the captain with few options. But not in Sweden. For Vinciguerra and Tillstrom are both top class players who can deliver the goods against most visiting sides, not to speak of one that does not have a single player in the top 350.

``I have been practising singles all week and I was ready to play. I am playing better and better each day,'' said Tillstrom.

For India, of course, it hardly made a difference that Tillstrom replaced Enqvist in singles. ``From our point of view the withdrawal of Enqvist does not change anything,'' said Ramesh Krishnan.

Meanwhile, Mahesh Bhupathi, who injured his left calf muscle two days ago, said that he was optimistic about playing the doubles on Saturday.

India and Sweden have played each other three times in the past in Davis Cup. The first tie was played in Bangalore in August 1985 on a fast disintegrating grass court at Cubbon Park. Although the Swedes won 4-1, it was a marvellous contest with Vijay Amritraj playing dream tennis to beat Mats Wilander in the fourth match a day after he and his brother Anand had figured in a memorable doubles.

Two years later, the teams met in the Davis Cup final on an indoor clay court in Gothenburg where the visiting team was outplayed 5-0.

The last tie was played in the South Club in Calcutta four years ago and this time it was a bit of a surprise that Sweden, inspired by an in-form Jonas Bjorkman, managed to blank India 5- 0.

Ah, there we are then. History is against India. So, in fact, is the geography, so to say. And, most of all, plain common sense - or tennis logic if you please - wouldn't give the visiting team much of a chance over the next three days.

In fact, should the visitors manage to keep interest alive on the third day, it would be the mother of all miracles!

lThe draw: Friday, July 21: Opening singles: (4.30 p.m. IST start): Andreas Vinciguerra v Harsh Mankad; to be followed by Mikael Tillstrom v Prahlad Srinath.

Saturday, July 22: Doubles: (5.30 p.m. IST) start: Mikael Tillstrom and Nicklas Kulti v Mahesh Bhupathi and Syed Fazaluddin.

Sunday, July 23: Reverse singles: (3.30p.m. IST start): Andreas Vinciguerra v Prahlad Srinath; to be followed by Mikael Tillstrom v Harsh Mankad.