Nostalgia will be thick in the air as the Delhi Gymkhana Club gets ready for a Davis Cup tie. For the current group of Indian tennis players, however, it will be about clutching on to the straws of past glory. Three-time Davis Cup finalists India are not part of the ruling class of the premier men’s team event anymore. On Friday, they will take on Denmark in a two-day tie in the capital to make sure they don’t drop further down the order and stay afloat in Group I. “It’s a matter of pride. I don’t think we can fathom being in Group II,” says India’s Yuki Bhambri.
Since 2000, India have consistently sat on the rung just under elite 16-team World Group, breaking through to the select group for two years (2010-2011). In footballing terms, the World Group is the premier league while Group I is the Championship. India has never dropped below that. For seven years in a row, from 2014 to 2021, the team has competed in the World Group Playoffs.
The Davis Cup format, however, was rejigged in 2020 and the competition got rid of zonals: which means there will be no Asia-Oceania Group I for India to ease into the competition at the beginning of the year. They could be thrown straight into the deep end and be drawn with one of the more competitive European or South American teams in the first round. It was India’s 1-3 defeat to Finland in the World Group I first round on 21 September that brought them to a Group I relegation playoff.
“We have been knocking on the doors of the World Group for so many years now,” says Bhambri. “The format has changed. I still don’t think anyone of us can really consider being in Group II. When you play for your country, anyway there’s an added responsibility. I think each one of us will be going into the tie knowing that we deserve to be at least in Group I.”
There’s much at stake, and fortunately for India, they will be playing at home for the first time in three years. Of the 28 grass courts at the Delhi Gymkhana Club, some will be repurposed for temporary stands to accommodate approximately 4,000 invited spectators. “There's a Davis Cup match being held in New Delhi for the first time since 2016, when India played Spain,” said India’s Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali. “The players are also looking forward to playing in front of a crowd, which they haven’t had a chance to do in the last two years.” India’s home-court advantage includes choice of surface, which in this case was grass. Unlike the yesteryears, grass isn’t a natural go-to choice for the Indian players, but rather a surface their opponents will be most uncomfortable on.
The Indian team had used a similar ploy against Italy when they last played at home in 2019. But the Davis Cup tie saw Matteo Berrettini, who went on to make Wimbledon finals in 2021, break through. Looking distinctly uncomfortable on a surface on which they had built their legacy, India were shown up 1-3 by the Italians. India’s only point came in doubles.
But Denmark is no Italy. The biggest resistance India could have faced from the European side was from Holger Rune. The 18-year-old, ranked 88 in the world, however decided to pull out of the tie last week. “I think he looked at grass and decided not to come,” quips Bhambri, “It certainly makes our life easier.” In Rune’s absence, India start as clear favourites. They are ranked 22 in Davis Cup, while Denmark are placed at 50. After a long time, the Indian selectors also had an almost full squad to choose from.
Bhambri, who’s from New Delhi, is set for an “emotional return” to the team competition. He will play for India for the first time since 2017, when he stretched the talented Canadian Denis Shapovalov to five sets during a World Group Playoff tie in Edmonton, Canada. Having overcome knee troubles since 2018, the 29-year-old has already started making an impact. He won a round at the ATP event in Pune and defeated Pune champion Joao Sousa in three tough sets at the ATP 500 Dubai Open qualifiers.
Bhambri (ranked 590), Ramkumar Ramanathan (170) and Prajnesh Gunneswaran will carry out the singles duties for India while Rohan Bopanna (ranked 32) and Divij Sharan are likely to play the doubles rubber. “Even though the players have not played or practised much on grass, they have an idea of how the surface plays. That's the experience we carry on to the court with us,” says Ali, a former Davis Cup player. “Ramkumar now plays serve and volley, which suits grass perfectly. Keeping the surface in mind, we have all our best players. Sumit (Nagal) is not here, he’s still in rehab after a hip surgery. But grass is not his preferred surface. All the players are here, having played tournaments in the last 2-3 weeks, which is probably the best preparations any player can have.”
Meanwhile, Demark’s highest ranked singles player is World No 305 Mikael Torpegaard. Former Wimbledon doubles champion Frederik Nielsen is the most experienced player in the side and will double up as the team captain. “Psychologically, yes it’s important to be ranked higher,” adds Ali, who has been putting the team through the paces since last week. “But we don’t want to take any team easy. Davis Cup is known to throw a lot of nasty surprises.For whatever reason, if we don’t win this match, it is going to take us another two years to come back to the same position. For us to remain in the World Group is absolutely essential.” It is a battle India is unlikely to lose, but one that they must win.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.