The All India Tennis Association (AITA) selection committee has officially announced their team for the upcoming second round zonal Davis Cup tie against China. India’s highest ranked singles player Yuki Bhambri (110) leads the lineup consisting of Ramkumar Ramanathan (135) and Sumit Nagal (223). In the doubles, world no 20 Rohan Bopanna was an automatic selection. He is joined by veteran Leander Paes in the five-man playing team. Divij Sharan was named as a reserve..
The AITA was firm with regard to “reservations expressed by some of the players”. They also said that “any issues between the players had to be settled in a nice manner in the interest of the nation between themselves”. The statement is a reference to the animosity between Bopanna and Paes in recent years. Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali said, “Whatever personal differences the players have, they need to put them aside and need to play for the country. You’ve made yourself available for the team, now you’ve been selected, so now you have to play.”
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) made experimental changes to the Davis Cup format for zonal ties. The rules allow for a five-man squad instead of the usual four, thus opening up chances of fielding a specialised doubles team. Previously, the Indian team used to opt for a three-singles-one-doubles combination.
The strategy led to an ugly spat leading to the last three Davis Cup ties. In Pune 2017, the selection committee dropped Bopanna, but approached him again at the last minute after Saketh Myneni’s injury. Bopanna allegedly refused and Vishnu Vardhan got the call up. In Bangalore, under new captain Mahesh Bhupathi, Leander Paes was dropped at the draw ceremony. Paes had even flown down from Mexico days earlier to confirm his availability for the tie. In the World Group Playoff in Canada, his availability wasn’t even checked. The AITA had initially named Bopanna and Myneni initially for the team. Unfortunately, Myneni was unfit and reserve N Sriram Balaji pulled out due to an ankle injury. Purav Raja was drafted in with Bopanna and that effectively swung the tie in Canada’s favour.
To avoid any controversy, AITA team was firm in their stance that the five-member team and cannot change. Selection committee member Nandan Bal said, “We have been very categorical in saying that this is the five-member team and the sixth is Divij who is the reserve. If one of the five players gets injured, or has to withdraw for some reason, only then will Divij come into the picture. Of course, Divij is slightly higher ranked than Leander, but in a crunch situation, you’re going to need Leander’s experience.”
Leander Paes inclusion will give the 44-year-old another chance of setting a Davis Cup record of most doubles wins. He is currently tied with Italian legend Nicola Pietrangeli on 42 wins. Paes said, “It is always an honour to play for India. I respect Rohan’s talent and am looking forward to playing with him against the Chinese team.”
The Indian team will be led by Bhambri, who reached the third round at Indian Wells after beating Frenchman Lucas Pouille. The win is expected to help him edge closer to the top 100 rankings for the first time since 2016.