Come Friday morning, the Tricolour will be waved around the R.K. Khanna Stadium in New Delhi when Leander Paes returns to lead yet another improbable charge into the Davis Cup World Group.
Tennis, like most other sports in India, is more about emotion than skill (just as well, given our moderate results skill-wise). Tennis more than most others.
The reason for that is that we are the eternal underdogs. Unless we are playing some unknown team, which is rare, India are always on the receiving end, needing yet another fairytale ending to get them back in the big league. In this case, the World Group.
The last win barely registered on the emotional Richter Scale. It was in New Zealand, as far away as it can get on the planet, and though it was quite a testing affair, New Zealand is one of those rare teams which we were expected to beat. It wasn’t easy still. Down 1-2 in the five-match Asia-Oceania Group 1 contest, it needed some serious recovery from Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri to get India into the World Group play-off. There wasn’t any Paes there, so that effectively took care of whatever little attention the rubber should have got. After all, tennis in India is Leander Paes.
It is always Paes who brings the best out of India, be it the people or the team. This diminutive star is what makes all the difference, with his chest-thumping, fist-pumping exuberance and frequently, the improbable results. He has been the lynchpin of success, of visits to the World Group, which are remarkably high for a side that couldn’t splice together a decent singles player.
So come Friday, India will be up against it once more when they meet the Czech Republic. However, the contest looks a little more on even keel than one would presume.
There are no real names in the Czech side. Their top gun Tomas Berdych isn’t in the squad and the singles line-up isn’t the best in the world. The drama therefore will begin from the top. With the Indian singles being dodgy, it is in all likelihood going to boil down to how the doubles goes.
In comes Leander Paes. Again.
As if that wasn’t enough drama, we have a pretty emotional reunion of Paes and erstwhile partner Radek Stepanek. These two won the doubles in the Australian Open in 2012 and then the US Open the next year. So essentially, two players who have been through the thick and thin of it all will be facing off across the net, doing their best to put the other down, for national pride.
It is a little more than just emotions though. Czech Republic find themselves at an unfamiliar place.
The squad, without Berdych and Stepanek, went down to Australia in the World Group First Round, and were relinquished to the World Group playoffs. One rubber away from going down to the Zone Groups.
This, for a side which has hardly ever left the World Group, this is huge.
It doesn’t get any closer than this. Especially since playing India in India is not the easiest thing to do. Not if your boys are relative greenhorns. India pit Devvarman, Bhambri, Paes and Rohan Bopanna against Jiri Vesely, Lukas Rosol, Adam Pavlasek and Stepanek. Vesely has a singles world ranking of 40, while the top Indian is Bhambri at 125. Two of the Indians don’t even have a singles ranking.
That said, the Czech aren’t that far apart from the Indians, irrespective of their world ranking of No. 1 on the ITF chart. Simply because they’re playing in India.
Many a side has come to grief in India. The crowd is like an extra player, They were there when Paes came back from two sets down to end the run of a shell-shocked Goran Ivanisevic at the NSCI Courts, many moons ago.
So for an inexperienced side, it can be a daunting exercise. Playing a pumped up Indian side, with a crowd that will do everything to derail them isn’t easy to start with. The thought that the top-ranked team could be out of the World Group is another sobering thought. The Czech Republic are fighting on two fronts, neither of which will give them an inch. Not to mention the heat that is afflicting Delhi.
So we are in for quite a contest. On paper too, this one looks a little too close to call. We will have to see how Day One pans to figure where things stand.
But the hostilities will be quite fascinating. That is given.