As Indian tennis enters its transition stage, Mary Hopkin's 1968 single hit "Those were the days" comes to mind. Yes, those were indeed the days when the Krishnans and the Amritrajs held centre stage and took India to the Davis Cup finals in 1966, 1974 and 1987, when Vijay Amritraj made it to the quarterfinals of the singles event at Wimbledon in 1973 and 1981, and when Ramesh Krishnan did likewise in 1986.
And yes in the days before tennis went Open, Ramanathan Krishnan was among the top four players in the world besides making the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1960 and 1961. Even during the 90s and the early years of the new millennium, Indian tennis continued to be a force to reckon with as Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi not only won Grand Slam doubles titles but also saw to it that India stayed in the prestigious Davis Cup World Group.
Now at the start of 2014, there is a metamorphosis in the composition of the team as India opens its challenge in the Davis Cup with an Asia/Oceania group I contest against Chinese Taipei which is to be played at Indore from January 31. Yes, India have been languishing for some time now in the regional competition and this year it appears like we will have to start from scratch.
There is no Bhupathi, semi-retired and past his best, and no Paes who has requested a break after playing virtually non-stop tennis for well over 20 years. At the age of 40, the evergreen veteran certainly deserves some time off from national duty. But even the durable Paes cannot last forever and the AITA has done well in looking forward. It may be a hard, tortuous journey ahead but a start has to be made, so why not now?
Paes and Bhupathi may continue to win doubles titles around the ATP circuit – with different partners of course – adding to their impressive tally of 53 and 52 titles respectively. Bopanna is doing his bit to keep the Indian flag flying having struck up a successful combination with Aisam Qureshi. Just the other day the India-Pakistan pairing finished runners-up in the Sydney international.
But in the Davis Cup, India will have to start all over again. The singles players for the Chinese Taipei tie are Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri while Bopanna will have a new doubles partner in debutant Saketh Myneni. Bopanna in fact returns to the Davis Cup squad after a two year absence. Somdev (93) and Bhambri (172) are the two leading Indians in the ATP rankings.
It must have been a close call between Myneni, ranked 318, and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, ranked 314, but apparently the former has been rewarded for his superior singles record against Jeevan and his splendid show at the Chennai Open a few days ago when he along with his Russian partner Karen Khachanov shocked the top seeded pair of Bopanna and Qureshi on their way to the semifinals.
Saketh in fact has beaten Jeevan in all their singles meetings and also has a reputation of being the better doubles player. At Indore, he will be doubling up as a third singles player, ready to take over in case of an injury to the top two. But there is no doubt that Somdev and Yuki will carry the main responsibility at Indore. The Indian ace is playing reasonably well of late while Yuki will no doubt be inspired by his quarter final entry at the Chennai Open – only the third Indian to do so after Paes and Somdev.
Bhupathi’s exclusion obviously will lead to speculation whether he has played his last Davis Cup tie and though coach Zeeshan Ali said it would not be right to think along those lines, it is difficult to see the 39-year-old veteran who has had his clashes with officialdom returning to the squad. With the transition phase having begun, it is better to invest in youth particularly with experience being provided by the likes of Somdev and Bopanna – and Paes whenever he returns.
Bopanna himself is making a comeback having last played in the Davis Cup against Uzbekistan in 2012. It may be recalled that Bopanna and Bhupathi were banned by the AITA because of disciplinary issues after the London Olympics later that year. India had hosted New Zealand in September 2012 but both players were ignored for the tie and continued to be on the sidelines when India hosted Korea and Indonesia last year.
Jeevan and Sanam Singh are the reserves and apparently both Zeeshan Ali and non-playing captain Anand Amritraj are happy with the combination. The squad members could not have asked for a better combination than Zeeshan and Anand who bring to the table loads of experience. Their inputs are bound to stand the youthful players in very good stead.
An interesting inclusion as a special invitee is Ramkumar Ramanathan who stunned Somdev in the first round at the Chennai Open. From any angle it is heartening to see the AITA initiate the rebuilding process and this far sighted policy of encouraging young talent and looking forward is bound to yield results. These will not be seen immediately but over a longish period and it is a phase that calls for patience and perseverance from all concerned.