Davis Cup: India fancy chances against formidable Italy in qualifier

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 31, 2019 16:32 hrs
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Kolkata: India would strive to make the most of home conditions, a favourable surface and format to battle history and higher ranked Italy in a Davis Cup World Group qualifiers tie here from Friday.

India, led by non-playing captain Mahesh Bhupathi, will be playing on the iconic South Club grass court, a surface the Italians have not had the most success in recent years.

Bhupathi, who made his debut as a Davis Cup player at the South Club 24 years ago, has been bullish about this being India's best chance to advance to the elite World Group stage of the Davis Cup for the first time since 2011.

Besides the surface, the duration of the matches in the new format - best of three sets rather than the usual five -- also gives India some advantage.

Traditionally, India have been stronger in the doubles rubber and would look forward to day two of the two-day meet. Veteran Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan are in good form too, having recently clinched the Maharashtra Open.

But India need three points to win the match and therefore, the country's two highest ranked singles players Prajnesh Gunneswaran and Ramkumar Ramanathan would have to continue the good work they have been doing over the past year.

Ramanathan (133) reached his first ATP final on grass at Newport last year, while Gunneswaran has soared to a career high 102 and is coming off his first Grand Slam main draw appearance.

Recent Cup history, though, is against the hosts. Every time in the last five years, India had been in a situation where they needed to beat a higher ranked opponent to advance to the World Group stage, they floundered in the singles rubbers.

Italy's non-playing captain Corrado Barazzutti has maintained that rankings don't matter in the Davis Cup and they are favourites only on paper.

The visitors, spearheaded by World No.19 Marco Cecchinato, boast of three players ranked inside the top 60 in the world -- Andreas Seppi (37) and Matteo Berrettini (54) being the other two.

The South Club, which is hosting the competition after 16 years, has previously seen some epic ties played on its grass courts, none more theatrical than India's 3-2 upset win over more fancied Switzerland, a match in which Leander Paes and Ramesh Krishnan prevailed over higher-ranked Jakob Hlasek and Marc Rosset.

"It was one of the most memorable matches in Davis Cup history as it rained so much that the match was about to be called off. The referee had already booked his ticket back home. We worked whole night to get the court ready. In the morning, the referee came and said it is 'Indian black magic'," Bengal Tennis Association COO Sujoy Ghosh recollected.

India's 3-2 win over Brazil in 1966 is another memorable tie at the venue where Jaidip Mukerjea and India's most singles winner Ramanathan Krishnan starred for the hosts and in one tie Krishnan came back from 2-5 to beat Brazil's Thomaz Koch 7-5 over four days.

While most of these players have retired long back, homeboy Paes is still around but since helping India win against China in the Asia/Oceania Group I tie last April, the 45-year old icon has been sidelined.

India, three-time Davis Cup runners up, fell 4-0 to Serbia in their World Group play-off clash last September and then were drawn to play against Italy at home in the qualifiers in their bid for a place in November's 18-team Finals in Madrid.

The Indian team will look back at the 3-2 triumph over the Italians for inspiration. The combination of Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan had led India to the win at the same venue 34 years ago in 1985.

However, overall, the Italians -- who have lifted the Davis Cup once in 1976 -- lead 4-1 head-to-head.

The Davis Cup will also start a new era this weekend as the revamped team competition kicks off with 12 qualifying-round ties spread across the globe to decide which nations progress to November's finals week in Madrid.