Italy, expectedly, won the tie 3-1 to qualify for the Madrid finals in November. But the doubles victory at Calcutta South Club on Saturday gave India a decent consolation in this Davis Cup encounter against a far superior side.
Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan won against Simone Bolelli and Matteo Berrettini in a gripping three-setter; 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. But India’s top-ranked Prajnesh Gunneswaran went down tamely to Andreas Seppi in the first reverse singles rubber. Gunneswaran had lost to Berrettini on Friday, while Ramkumar Ramanathan fell to Seppi. Until India find a solution to their singles woes, they are not going to reach the Davis Cup top rung. As India’s non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi put it after the tie, all the 12 teams that were qualifying for the finals have at least one top-100 player.
Doubles however was a story of a comeback man hitting the ground running and a veteran lifting his game when it mattered. Sharan had last played for India in 2012, against New Zealand at Chandigarh. On Saturday, Sharan’s returns were excellent and his net-play precise. In fact, Sharan, 32, was sort of carrying Bopanna till the middle of the second set, when the senior partner finally hit top gear.
Italy brought in Berrettini to partner Bolelli in the doubles. It was interesting that Marco Cecchinato wasn’t given a game here. The Italian camp didn’t reveal if the world no. 19 had any injury issues. Berrettini was sublime during his victory over Gunneswaran in the second singles. But the doubles demanded a greater forward approach and clinical net-play. With very little experience of playing on grass, the 22-year-old struggled to adapt.
But it was Italy who drew first blood. Bopanna losing his serve in the ninth game of the first set gave a feeling of déjà vu. A forehand crosscourt from Bolelli set it up and Bopanna missed a volley on breakpoint. Berrettini hit four big serves in a row as Italy took the first set at 6-4.
A clinical half-volley winner from Sharan helped the hosts earn a breakpoint in the fourth game of the second set, and an unforced error from Berrettini conceded the break. Italians took turn piling pressure on the Indians’ service, but Sharan held on to clinch the set 6-3.
After an exchange of serves in the third set, Bopanna and Sharan started to attack. In the ninth game, Bolelli conceded a double fault followed by a forehand error that gave India another break. Bopanna saved a breakpoint with an ace down the middle, and couple of points later India had the match.
“What makes the difference is being able to connect a lot of returns. We did that in one extra game than them. We came back well in the third set,” Sharan said after the match. Bopanna thanked the Kolkata crowd for providing “energy”. But with regard to the reverse singles, a gulf in class all but ruled out a Tianjin encore. Gunneswaran lost 6-1, 6-4 to Seppi, and struggled with his service again. Seppi had been a top-20 player in the past and once he gained control, he never allowed Gunneswaran a sniff. The latter might have risen from 300 to 102 in the rankings over the past 12-odd months, but he is still way behind the top level. Today, he won only 60 per cent points on his first serves compared to Seppi’s 89 per cent. The Italian had seven aces against Gunneswaran’s one.
“When you play quality opposition, when you let them get ahead it’s not easy. I think that hurt us in most of the singles matches,” Bhupathi said after the tie.
AITA to decide on Bhupathi’s future
The All India Tennis Association (AITA) is mulling on extending Bhupathi’s contract as the non-playing captain. Bhupathi took charge two years ago and his contract is now up for renewal. The AITA secretary general Hironmoy Chatterjee dropped a hint on Saturday that continuity would be maintained.
“We have no intention at the moment. Nor have we discussed the matter. In due course, we have enough time, when the committee sits down, we will discuss. If the committee feels, which I strongly feel the committee will feel, the continuity is needed, continuation will take place,” Chatterjee told The Sunday Express.
Earlier, after India’s defeat, Bhupathi indirectly put the ball in the AITA’s court, saying he would continue to give his feedback (to the team).
“I took this job because I knew we had a significant depth in our team. It’s been great to work with all of them at various stages. There’s a lot of work to be done. There’s still potential, especially for the singles boys. Will continue to give my feedback. All of them (players) have their team when it comes to fitness and coaching, but they love engaging in debates with me and getting my inputs. They respect me enough to take my inputs, that helps the relationship as well,” Bhupathi said.
After losing the world qualifiers, India will play the Zonal Group I tie in September.