Davis Cup Qualifier 2019: India hope Kolkata's grass is greener on their side as Italy come knocking

Deepti Patwardhan
India's biggest advantage when they host Italy in the World Group qualifiers on Friday and Saturday will lie in the quick, low-bouncing grass-court, which has been India’s go-to surface historically in Davis Cups.

'Grass is for cows', the legendary Spaniard Manuel Santana had said in the 1960s before it was parroted by others, most famously by Ivan Lendl. It was meant with equal amounts of scoff and humour for generations of Europeans thoroughbred on the red clay.

Quick, low-bouncing grass has been India's go-to surface historically in Davis Cups. For years, highly-rated teams with higher-ranked players succumbed to the uneven bounce on the patchy lawns India rolled out to welcome visitors. Though there was a break in tradition recently, with the likes of Somdev Devvarman and Yuki Bhambri preferring the hard-courts, India selected the grass-courts of Kolkata's South Club when drawn against a European powerhouse, Italy.

(India's Davis Cup tie against Italy will be played on Friday and Saturday from 10.15 am. The match will be broadcast on DD Sports.)

And therein lies India's biggest advantage as they host Italy in the World Group qualifiers on Friday and Saturday.

"They have experience," said Mahesh Bhupathi, India's non-playing captain of the rivals. "If I had to pick a team (as favourites), I would pick them, but if I had to pick a team on grass, I would choose ours."

It helps, of course, that the only time, out of four, that India has beaten Italy in Davis Cup was in Calcutta in 1985. That Indian team had the likes of Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan, two of the best the country has produced. The current team will need a lot more than history to draw inspiration from if they have to recreate that success.

For starters, the team is completely outmatched on paper. Even with Italy's top singles player, Fabio Fognini, opting out, the team has two players in the top-50 and another couple in the top-100. The Indian challenge, on the other hand, will be spearhead by World No 102 Prajnesh Gunneswaran.

On the eve of the tie, Italy played their opening gambit. The team has decided to keep their highest ranked player, World No 19 Marco Cecchinato, out of the singles rubbers. As per the draw made on Thursday, Andreas Seppi (ranked 37) will take on India's Ramkumar Ramanathan (133) in the opening rubber. Seppi is an experienced hand and a former top-20 player who has scored wins over the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev.

In the second match on Friday, India No 1 Gunneswaran will face Matteo Berrettini (53). Asian Games gold medallists Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan are up against Simone Bolelli and Cecchinato in the doubles contest.

According to the new Davis Cup format, the qualifying ties are to be played in best of three sets, with two singles matches scheduled on Friday and the doubles rubber and reverse singles on Saturday.

"Personally I haven't played on these new courts. I felt the centre court is playing better than the old. My boys had a hit and then said 'ball is bouncing too nicely'. Well that's not ideal," said Bhupathi after the draw ceremony on Thursday. "We didn't come to Kolkata for that. But hopefully in the next two days there is a lot more wear and tear."

The Indian team has invested a lot of hope in the recent success of Gunneswaran and Ramkumar on grass. While the former defeated Next Gen star Denis Shapovalov in Stuttgart last year, Ramkumar became the first Indian since Devvarman in 2011 to reach an ATP Final by making the summit clash of the Newport grass-court event.

Gunneswaran is coming in on the back of his most successful season on tour. The 28-year-old, who had lost five years to injury before coming back in 2016, won two $150,000 Challenger events in the year and won a bronze in singles at the Asian Games in Jakarta.

The turnaround of his season happened during India's Davis Cup tie in China, when he was drafted in the last minute to play the live fifth rubber. He wore the burden lightly and defeated China's teen sensation, Yibing Wu in two straight sets to seal an unlikely victory for India, who were 0-2 down after the first day. Gunneswaran continued on the upward curve as he qualified for the main draw of the Australian Open in January, before losing to Frances Tiafoe in the first round.

Always a big server, Ramkumar has worked on his volleying skills in the past couple of seasons to add a definite attacking edge to his game. The Indian had created a stir in 2017 when he defeated Dominic Thiem at the ATP event in Antalya (Turkey), which was also played on green lawns.

"It is a good weapon to have," the 24-year-old had said about his sharpened volleying skills during the Maharashtra Open at the start of the year. "Eighty percent of the players play from back of the court, so sometimes it surprised them if you come up and start volleying." While the player has started looking more comfortable while stepping into the court, he will need to use the trick judiciously to beat the weathered 34-year-old Seppi.

"I have seen him a few times on grass," Seppi said of Ramkumar on Thursday. "He reached the final in Newport. He is very dangerous; plays a lot of serve and volley. So it is not easy. Courts are not like Wimbledon! It is different grass and may be not perfect. But we are here to play and we will do our best."

While doubles had been India's strength traditionally, the team has struggled to get the combination right in recent years. The last time India won the doubles rubber in a World Group play-off was in 2014, when Bopanna and Leander Paes overcame a two-set deficit against Serbia. In the four subsequent ties, they have tried out four different combinations, but haven't tasted victory.

It's not likely to get easier against Italy. In Bolelli they have a player (only one in the tie) who has won a men's doubles Grand Slam title €" he won the 2015 Australian Open title with Fognini. The 33-year-old is a former top-30 singles player, and along with Cecchinato, might prove a handful for the Indians. Though Bopanna and Sharan now also play together on the tour, they are a young partnership, still to iron out the creases in their game. Standing opposite two players who are much better individually, they will have to be in perfect sync to win that doubles point.

But Ramkumar and Gunnewaran will have to do most of heavy lifting. As encouraging as their performances have been in recent times, they are not as proficient on grass as their predecessors. In the last ten years, India has opted to play on grass just once: against Korea in 2016. The point was driven home by Bhupathi's opposite number, Corrado Barazzutti on Thursday.

"The players play just a few tournaments on grass. So everybody are in the same situation," said the Italian non-playing captain. "India doesn't also play on grass like say for ten years! So there is no problem. We have the players who can play well on grass. We don't complain. We are here to play and we play."

Time for India to put their grass-court shoes on.

Also See: Davis Cup Qualifier 2019: Grass court makes tie tougher for us, says Italy captain Corrado Barazzutti

Davis Cup Qualifiers 2019: Ramkumar Ramanathan to open India's campaign against Andreas Seppi of Italy

Davis Cup Qualifier 2019: India won't miss Leander Paes, claims skipper Mahesh Bhupati ahead of Italy clash

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