Ramanathan-Bhambri Fast Work Their Way Up the Tennis Ladder
There are two inescapable conclusions to be drawn from the narrow 3-2 loss to Canada in the Davis Cup World Group play off tie at Edmonton. One is that Ramkumar Ramanathan and Yuki Bhambri are on their way up and as team captain Mahesh Bhupathi put it ''should be in the top 100 by this time next year’’ The other is that it should not be long before India are back in the prestigious elite group of 16 teams.
There was a time when India was a regular entrant in the World Group. However from the start of the new millennium following the retirements of several stalwarts and Leander Paes’ decision to play only doubles things have not looked very bright and India have generally languished in the regional Asia/Oceania group. India’s last entry in the World Group was in 2011 when they lost 4-1 to Serbia. The latest setback marks the fourth straight year that the Indian team has been knocked out in the World Group play offs having lost to Serbia (2014 in Bangalore), Czech Republic (2015 in New Delhi) and Spain (2016 in New Delhi).
Away matches are not exactly India’s forte and Canada were the favourites going into the tie. In the circumstances winning two singles matches and losing another in five sets is a record that the Indians can look back with some satisfaction. There are clear signs that the team is settling down so perhaps a return to the World Group in 2019 cannot be ruled out.
It is clear that Ramkumar and Yuki hold the key to India making a comeback to the elite group at the earliest opportunity. Their recent performances have been heartening and with Rohan Bopanna and Syketh Myneni around the doubles – always crucial in a Davis Cup encounter - is in capable hands. In fact it was India’s misfortune that an injury forced Myneni to withdraw from the tie against Canada. Purav Raja who partnered Bopanna in the doubles at Edmonton was the weak link and the duo went down in four sets leaving India with the tough task of winning both the reverse singles to stage a comeback into the World Group. This was never going to be a realistic opportunity with world No 51 Denis Shapovalov in the Canadian ranks.
Shapovalov has impressed no less an expert than Pete Sampras. The former world No 1 has rated the Canadian as among the most promising young players on the circuit and he lived up to his rising stature by winning both his singles. He clinched the tie in Canada’s favour defeating Ramkumar though he had to stave off a gallant challenge from Yuki before winning his singles on the opening day in five sets.
The 18-year-old Shapovalov made the tennis world take note of him with his shock win over Rafael Nadal at the Montreal Masters. He then became the youngest player to reach the fourth round of the US Open, only his second Grand Slam. He has also registered victories over Juan Martin Del Potro and Jo Wilfred Tsonga in his astonishing rise in the last few months.
The outside chance of India pulling off an upset hinged on both Ramkumar and Yuki winning their singles against Brayden Schnur Canada’s weak link and taking the doubles. They achieved the first but came a cropper in the second with 45- year-old former world No 1 Daniel Nestor anchoring Canada’s victory in the doubles thus dashing India’s hopes. Indeed there were those who believed that the absence of world No 11 Milos Raonic gave India their best chance to re-enter the World Group but that was not to be.
Be that as it may there are reasons to be optimistic about the immediate future of Indian tennis including a return to the World Group sooner rather than later. At the moment Ramkumar and Yuki are ranked No 154 and No 157 respectively but give the distinct impression that they have it in them to rise significantly over the next year even in a highly competitive field as Bhupathi has predicted. They have already climbed the ladder steadily thanks to Ramkumar shocking Austria’s Dominic Thiem and Yuki stunning Gael Monfils of France not too long ago around the circuit. Thiem was in the top ten and Monfils in the top 15 in the ATP rankings at the time.
Yuki can also look back with a great deal of satisfaction over his showing against Shapovalov at Edmonton. Of late he has matured as a player displaying the mental toughness required to sustain the pressures of Davis Cup play and he proved this in unmistakable terms against a player ranked some 100 places above him. Yuki was down by two sets and had a match point against him in the third set and yet he stretched Shapovalov to five sets before finally going down after an audacious performance over almost four hours.
Ramkumar on his part has an effective serve and volley game with his fitness proving to be a bonus. Like Yuki he too is mentally very tough something he proved during the Antalya Open this year when after defeating Thiem he progressed to the quarterfinals before losing to the much higher ranked Marcos Baghdatis in a third set tie break.
These two players then hold the key not only to India making it back to the World Group but also making it big around the ATP circuit. Being in the top 100 is not a new experience for the 25-year-old Yuki for he was ranked as high as 88 about two years ago. But at the moment it is the 22-year-old Ramkumar who appears to be the more exciting prospect.